The US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law against an alleged copyright infringer on its implied-license defense, finding that a blog operator’s publication of entire articles through a really simple syndication (RSS) feed does not give rise to an implied license without substantial evidence showing an intent to grant a license. MidlevelU, Inc. v. ACI Information Group, Case No. 20-10856 (11th Cir. Mar. 3, 2021) (Pryor, J.)
MidlevelU published a free blog designed to attract potential customers in the midlevel healthcare market. MidlevelU made the full text of its blog articles (instead of only headlines and article summaries) available in an RSS feed. ACI is a content aggregator that subscribed to the blog’s RSS feed. ACI copied and published more than 800 entries from MidlevelU’s blog by including those articles in a curated index of abstracts and full-text articles of academic blogs. ACI had no license agreement with MidlevelU.
After discovering the ACI’s activities, MidlevelU registered 50 of its most recent articles for copyright protection with the US Copyright Office. MidlevelU also sent ACI a cease-and-desist letter demanding that its content be removed from ACI’s index. ACI removed the content from the index and coded links to index entries for MidlevelU’s articles so that they would redirect to the MidlevelU’s website. Months later, MidlevelU discovered that, although its content was no longer available on the index website, it still appeared in the website repositories of university libraries. These entries credited ACI as the content’s publisher and directed visitors to view the blog’s full-text content in the “subscribers only” section of the blog aggregator’s website.
MidlevelU sued ACI in federal district court, alleging copyright infringement of the registered articles. ACI asserted an implied-license defense. Relying on the Latimer case, which sets forth the test for implied license in work-for-hire situations, the district court entered judgment as a matter of law in MidlevelU’s favor, finding that there could be no implied license because the ACI could not meet the “creates a work at another person’s request” element of the Latimer test. ACI appealed.
The 11th Circuit found that the district court read Latimer too broadly by applying its holding outside of the work-for-hire context, but the Court nevertheless affirmed the district court’s decision because a jury could not have reasonably inferred from the evidence that the MidlevelU impliedly granted a license to ACI. The Court noted that it had never held that the Latimer test was the only way to prove an implied license. An implied license may arise from circumstances outside of work-for-hire situations: “Creating material at another’s request is not the essence of a license: an owner’s grant of permission to use the material is.”
When an owner clearly manifests consent to use of its copyrighted material, the owner impliedly grants a non-exclusive license. Citing Fields, a district court case in the search-engine web crawler context, ACI argued that an implied license arose because the MidlevelU did not code its website to tell aggregators not to copy or display its content. Without deciding whether Fields was correctly decided, the 11th Circuit rejected this theory. The Court reasoned that although the ACI presented evidence that the blog operator’s code allowed any web crawler to copy the blog pages, and evidence about search-engine web crawlers and the coding standards that tell web crawlers what they may copy, it failed to produce any evidence that it used a web crawler to collect the blog’s content. Rather, the evidence showed that ACI collected content by grabbing it through the blog’s RSS feeds. “Implied permission to enter through a front door (web crawler) does not also imply permission to enter through a back window (RSS feed).”
Similarly, the Court found that MidlevelU’s affirmative steps to disseminate the full text of its articles through its RSS feed—rather than only summaries or headlines—did not give rise to an implied license. ACI failed to introduce evidence of, for example, an industry practice that would allow a jury to infer that disseminating content through an RSS feed without restrictions implies permission to copy and publish that content on another website. The only evidence before the jury related to personal use of RSS-distributed content. This evidence constituted testimony that MidlevelU set up its RSS feed to make its content easier for readers to access, and testimony that RSS is used as an alternative to a web browser to read content—i.e., an RSS feed stores the articles received from a website, and a human then reads the articles through an RSS reader. The Court explained that “[i]mplied permission to enter the front door to shop (read content through an RSS reader for personal purposes) does not imply permission to enter and throw a party (sell computer-generated summaries paired with [software] showing the full-text content).”