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Copyright Office Solicits Comments on Deferred Examination Option

The US Copyright Office announced a public study to evaluate the merits of providing an option to defer examination of copyright registration materials until a later request by the applicant. Deferred Registration Examination Study: Notice and Request for Public Comment, 86 Fed. Reg. 70540 (Dec. 10, 2021). To aid in the effort, the Copyright Office is soliciting public comments, which are due by January 24, 2022.

Copyright protection automatically attaches to an original work of authorship as soon as it’s created and fixed in tangible form. Although registration is optional, the US Copyright Act provides significant incentives to encourage registration, which only occurs after the Copyright Office examines the work and determines that it is copyrightable. This process can often take many months. In 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a lawsuit for copyright infringement can be brought only after the Copyright Office registers the copyright. Fourth Estate v. Wall-Street.com, Case No. 17-571 (US March 4, 2019) (Ginsburg, Justice).

There is currently no option to delay or defer examination of submitted application materials. In an effort to modernize its technological infrastructure, the Copyright Office has previously solicited public input concerning the registration process. Respondents have submitted various proposals involving a deferred examination proceeding, some of which included:

  • Allowing applicants to submit application materials at a discounted fee
  • Delaying examination but still intaking information about the work into the public catalog
  • Allowing formal examination to determine whether the work should be registered at a later time for an additional fee
  • If the work is registered, attaching statutory benefits with an effective date of when the original materials were received.

Commenters have indicated that benefits of permitting deferred examination include more registrations, more timely registrations, expansion of the public record, improved efficiency by removal of the examination step, decreased processing times, lower expenses and more deposits available for the Library of Congress’s collections.

In May 2021, Senator Thom Tillis, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, sent a letter to the Copyright Office requesting a study on the feasibility, benefits and costs of creating a deferred examination option for an application, including whether an applicant can obtain an effective date of registration upon submission and deposit while choosing to defer examination until a later time. He also asked the Copyright Office to consider whether statutory changes might be necessary to enable such an option.

In order to assess the viability of including a deferred examination option, the Copyright Office is inviting written comments on various subjects, including:

  • The deficiencies in the current registration process
  • The potential benefits and drawbacks of a deferred examination option
  • The possible legal or regulatory framework for the option
  • The impact of such an option on the Copyright Office, the Library and the ability to bring a lawsuit based on Fourth Estate
  • Whether the same goals that deferred examination is meant to achieve could be accomplished through alternative [...]

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US Copyright Office Expands Rights to Repair Software-Enabled Devices

The US Copyright Office issued new regulations expanding and strengthening consumers’ rights to repair software-enabled digital devices (such as video game consoles and medical devices) via exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Under 17 U.S.C. § 1201, it is generally unlawful to “circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to” copyrighted works. In response to proposals from several organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the iFixit and Repair Association, the Registrar of Copyright (as it has done every three years since 2000) made rulemaking recommendations to the Librarian of Congress; recommendations that have now been adopted as final rules. The new rules create exemptions to make it easier to repair software-enabled devices. In the prior rulemaking sessions, the Register of Copyrights recommended—and the Librarian of Congress adopted—17 groups of exceptions. This session, the Register recommended 14 additional classes of exemptions, all of which have been adopted.

Among the 14 classes of exemptions that were recommended and adopted are the following:

  • Computer programs that operate the following types of devices, to allow diagnosis, maintenance and repair:
    • Motorized land vehicles or marine vessels
    • Devices primarily designed for use by consumers
    • Medical devices and systems.

This proposed class initially included “modification” in addition to diagnosis, maintenance and repair, but the exemption for modifications was ultimately eliminated. The Register reasoned that including all “modification[s]” would encompass both infringing and noninfringing activities and would implicate the right to prepare derivative works, as well as other issues.

This proposed class, “Computer Programs – Repair,” was initially divided into four general categories: “(1) all software-enabled devices; (2) vehicles and marine vessels; (3) video game consoles; and (4) medical devices and systems.” Not all of the categories made it through, as the Register removed all software-enabled devices from the recommendations. The recommendations stated that this category would have made the class too broad and would have raised the complex question of which types of devices would qualify for permitted repair.

After consideration of all the issues, the Register determined the following three classes had sufficient commonalities to recommend them: Computer programs in devices primarily designed for use by consumers (such as the repairing of optical drives in video games), computer programs in marine vessels and computer programs and data in medical devices and systems. The adopted exemptions expanding the current exemptions for vehicle and device repair and added an exemption for medical devices and systems repair.

The Rules also expand exemptions for consumer-related devices only. In recommending exemptions for device repair, the Register found significant commonalities among uses and users in terms of the diversity of software-enabled devices designed for use by consumers. The Register determined that the narrowed uses of “diagnosis, maintenance, and repair” were supported by the fair use factors, and that the exemption was “not accomplished for the purpose of gaining access to other copyrighted works.” The recommendations also contained a special subset for video games, which narrows the exemption solely to the repair of optical drives. [...]

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Copyright Claims Board’s Proposed Rulemaking: How to Initiate and Respond to a Claim

In January 2021, Congress enacted the Consolidated Appropriations Act. This legislation incorporates the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement (CASE) Act of 2020, which includes revisions to the Copyright Act with the goal of creating a new venue for copyright owners to enforce their rights without having to file an action in federal court. The new venue, called the Copyright Claims Board (CCB), is designed to serve as an alternative forum where parties may voluntarily seek to resolve certain copyright claims regarding any category of copyrighted work.

On September 29, 2021, the US Copyright Office issued proposed rules in the Federal Register to establish the initial stages of a proceeding before the CCB. The proposed rules prescribe how to file a complaint, a process that includes submitting claim and notice forms online and paying a $100 filing fee. The proposed rulemaking notes that the claim form will require less information than what is required under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 12, as practice before the CCB will be less complex than practice in federal courts according to the Copyright Office.

After a claim is filed, a copyright claims attorney will review the claim to ensure compliance with applicable regulations. If the claim is approved, the claimant can proceed to serve the claim within 90 days. If the claim is not approved, the claimant has 30 days to file an amended claim. Counterclaims are subject to the same review process. To pass review muster, the claim must “clearly state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” § 224.1.3. Under the proposed rules, a copyright claims attorney must review the claim or counterclaim for unsuitability on the grounds set out in 17 U.S.C. § 1506(f)(3). If the copyright claims attorney concludes that the claim should be dismissed as unsuitable under CASE he or she shall recommend that the CCB dismiss the claim and set forth the basis for that conclusion. The proposed rulemaking notes that the CCB wants to avoid hearing overbroad or clearly implausible claims.

The respondent will have 60 days to opt out after receiving notice of the claim, or it will lose the opportunity to have the dispute decided in a federal court. The proposed rulemaking prescribes that the initial notice form, provided by the CCB, be similar to a summons and would require the claimant to identify the nature (i.e., infringement, noninfringement or misrepresentation) of the claims being asserted. If the respondent does not respond or opt out within 20 days after the claimant files a proof or waiver of service, then the CCB will send a second notice to supplement the initial notice by mail and email. A respondent can opt out online, using a CCB form or by mail.

All comments to the proposed rulemaking must be received no later than October 29, 2021, 11:59 pm EDT.




Second Circuit: Supreme Court Google Precedent Doesn’t Alter Copyright Law’s Fair Use Analysis

Addressing fair use as an affirmative defense to copyright infringement, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit amended its recent opinion, reversing a district court’s summary judgment in favor of fair use. The Court did not change its original judgment but took the opportunity to address the recent Supreme Court of the United States precedent in Google v. Oracle. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Lynn Goldsmith, Lynn Goldsmith, Ltd., Docket No. 19-2420-cv (2d Cir., Aug. 24, 2021) (Lynch, J.) (Jacobs, J., concurring).

Lynn Goldsmith and Lynn Goldsmith, Ltd. (collectively, LGL) appealed from a district court judgment that granted summary judgment to The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. (AWF) on its complaint for a declaratory judgment of fair use and dismissing defendants-appellants’ counterclaim for copyright infringement. The Second Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

In 1984, LGL’s agency licensed her 1981 photograph of Prince to Vanity Fair for use as an artist reference for creating a rendering of Prince to accompany Vanity Fair‘s profile of the artist. What LGL did not learn until more than 30 years later, shortly after Prince’s untimely death, was that the artist commissioned by Vanity Fair to create the Prince drawing was Andy Warhol and that Warhol had used the photograph to create an additional 15 silkscreen prints and illustrations, known as the Prince Series. In 2017, LGL notified AWF, as the successor to Warhol’s copyright in the Prince Series, of her claims of copyright infringement. AWF responded with a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that the Prince Series works were non-infringing, or, in the alternative, qualified as fair use of LGL’s photograph. LGL countersued for infringement. Relying on the Second Circuit’s 2013 holding in the copyright case Cariou v. Prince, the district court granted summary judgment to AWF, agreeing with its assertion of fair use and considering the Warhol work to be “transformative” of the original.

LGL’s appeal required the Second Circuit to consider the four fair use factors under §107 of the Copyright Act:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.

In its March 2021 opinion, the Second Circuit rejected AWF’s fair use defense, concluding that the Prince Series was not transformative and substantially similar to LGL’s original photograph.

After the Second Circuit’s initial disposition of the appeal, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., which discussed the four fair use factors as applied to a computer programming language and found that Google’s copying of certain Oracle application programming interfaces (APIs) “to create new products . . . [and] expand the use [...]

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Unhappy Together: No Right of Public Performance under California Copyright Law

Addressing for the first time whether California law establishes a right of public performance for the owners of pre-1972 sound recordings, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found no such right for music and overturned a district court’s grant of partial summary judgment. Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., Case No. 17-55844 (9th Cir. Aug. 23, 2021) (Lee, J.)

In 1971, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the rock band the Turtles formed Flo & Eddie to control the band’s song rights, including the hit song “Happy Together.” In 2013, Flo & Eddie filed a complaint alleging a violation of California common law and statutory copyright law arising out of Sirius XM’s playing of songs to which Flo & Eddie control the rights. Based on California’s copyright statute (Cal. Civ. Code § 980), Flo & Eddie argued that California law gave it the “exclusive ownership” of its pre-1972 songs—including the right of public performance—which required compensation whenever Flo & Eddie’s copyrighted recordings were publicly performed.

The district court granted partial summary judgment to Flo & Eddie in 2014, finding that California law protected sound recording owners’ right of public performance by granting “exclusive ownership” to the music, and therefore, Sirius XM must pay for playing pre-1972 music. The district court reasoned that “the plain meaning of having ‘exclusive ownership’ in a sound recording is having the right to use and possess the recording to the exclusion of others,” and further explained that there is “nothing in that phrase to suggest that the legislature intended to exclude any right or use of the sound recording from the concept of ‘exclusive ownership.’” The district court looked to individual dictionary definitions of the words “exclusive” and “ownership” to craft a broad meaning for the phrase “exclusive ownership,” ultimately finding that it must include the “right of public performance.” Sirius XM appealed.

In an opinion artfully embroidered with classic rock references, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court erred in finding that “exclusive ownership” under § 980(a)(2) included the right of public performance and remanded for entry of judgment consistent with the parties’ contingent settlement agreement. The Court faulted the district court’s dictionary-based approach to statutory interpretation, instructing that “[d]ictionaries and tools of grammatical construction can help determine plain meaning of specific words, but some phrases have a separate or more specialized ‘term of art’ meaning that cannot be stripped away from its historical context or subject matter area.” To that end, the Court took an expressly textualist approach to interpreting California’s law, looking back to common law in the 19th century when California first used the term “exclusive ownership” in its copyright statute in order to inform the understanding of that term as used at the time.

Based on this inquiry, the Ninth Circuit found that there was no recognized right of public performance for music and that California only protected unpublished works. The Court explained the distinction, stating that “[c]ommon law provides a perpetual copyright [...]

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When Pictures Aren’t Pictures: Real Estate Agent-Generated Floor Plans Are Outside Copyright Infringement Exception for Pictorial Representations

Examining whether the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act enacted in 1990 protects the creation of floor plans, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that such technical drawings generated for practical, rather than artistic, purposes are not covered by a statutory exception that removes the right to control pictures, paintings, photographs or other pictorial representations of their work from architects. Designworks Homes, Inc. et al. v. Columbia House of Brokers Realty, Inc. et al., Case Nos. 19-3608, 20-1099, -3104, 20-3107 (8th Cir. Aug. 16, 2021) (Arnold, J.)

The facts of the case are relatively simple: In the course of selling designed homes, homebuilders hired real estate agents to generate floor plans for use in their listings. The designers of the homes registered copyrights in the homes themselves, then sued the homebuilders and their real estate agents for copyright infringement.

The issue for the Court was whether 17 U.S.C. § 120(a), a statute designed to limit the scope of copyright protection for architectural works, applied to the floor plans that the real estate agents developed. Section 120(a) excludes from the scope of a copyright in an architectural work “the right to prevent the making, distributing, or public display of pictures, paintings, photographs, or other pictorial representations of the work.” The district court held that the floor plans fell within Section 120(a)’s exclusion and, thus, were not covered by the copyright.

The Eighth Circuit disagreed. Employing numerous canons of statutory construction, the Court held that the functional floor plans were neither pictures nor “other pictorial representations” within the meaning of the statute. Drawing from 1990s dictionaries, the Court reasoned that although a floor plan could conceivably be a picture, context showed otherwise. For example, Congress used the phrase “technical drawings” elsewhere in the copyright statute; thus, had Congress intended to exclude them here, it knew how to do so. Moreover, the types of floor plans at issue here were—in the Court’s view—not similar to the other listed categories of items for which copyright protection had been curtailed as the plans did not have any artistic expression.

Practice Note: Not all hope is lost for the homebuilder or developer. Although the Eighth Circuit declined to expressly consider other defenses, it explained that there were others that very readily could apply, including the doctrine of fair use.




Publisher’s Co-Authorship Claim Arises Under Copyright Act, Invoking Exclusive Federal Jurisdiction

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a copyright authorship dispute, finding that the district court had exclusive jurisdiction over the case because a book publisher’s claim of co-authorship arose under the federal Copyright Act, not state contract law. Di Angelo Publ’ns, Inc. v. Kelley, Case No. 20-20523 (5th Cir. Aug. 12, 2021) (Higginbotham, J.)

Makeup artist Jentry Kelley and Di Angelo Publications entered into a publishing contract for Kelley’s cosmetics book. Kelley provided Di Angelo with an initial three-page manuscript, which Di Angelo claimed it then transformed into a book while communicating and collaborating with Kelley. The book listed Kelley only as the holder of the book’s copyright. After an initial 1,000-copy print run, Kelley asked Di Angelo to prepare an updated or revised version of the book for sale. Di Angelo claimed it had prepared the updated work when it discovered that Kelley was attempting to work directly with Di Angelo’s printer to reduce the costs she would incur selling the revised edition, which violated the parties’ contract.

After unsuccessful overtures to the printer, Kelley filed a complaint in Harris County, Texas, asking for rescission of the parties’ contract because Di Angelo intentionally misled her regarding publishing costs and overcharged her for publishing services. Kelley alleged that she was the sole copyright owner and that Di Angelo did not develop or have any intellectual property rights in connection with the book. Di Angelo counterclaimed for breach of contract, among other claims, and sought a declaratory judgment that Kelley failed to substantially perform under the contract. Di Angelo alleged that Kelley had prevented it from selling the updated edition of the book.

Following partial summary judgment in favor of Kelley, including on the declaratory judgment claim, Di Angelo filed suit in the Southern District of Texas. Di Angelo disputed Kelley’s claim to exclusive copyright ownership and asserted a single claim for relief: A declaration that Di Angelo owned the copyright in the two editions of the book, as well as any derivative works, and had rights in their printing and distribution. Additionally,Di Angelo alleged that it acquired copyrights in the books by “writing, editing, planning and taking all photographs and making all illustrations, and planning, designing, and arranging the layout” of the book. Kelley moved to dismiss Di Angelo’s declaratory relief claim, characterizing the suit as an end-run around the Harris County rulings against Di Angelo and arguing that there was no federal jurisdiction because Di Angelo’s claim was premised solely on Kelley’s alleged breach of the contract, which was governed by Texas law. Di Angelo responded that resolution of the authorship dispute required the district court to interpret federal copyright law, including definitional and ownership provisions, which the state court lacked jurisdiction to address. The district court agreed with Kelley on the jurisdictional question and granted the motion to dismiss. Noting that the parties’ contract referred to Kelley as the “author,” the district court found that that Di Angelo’s claim [...]

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Supreme Court to Consider Whether 17 U.S.C. § 411 Requires Referral to Copyright Office

The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to review whether a district court is required to request that the Register of Copyrights advise whether inaccurate information, if known, would have caused the Register to refuse registration of the plaintiff’s asserted copyright. Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., Case No. 20-915 (Supr. Ct. June 1, 2021) (certiorari granted). The question presented is:

Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit erred in breaking with its own prior precedent and the findings of other circuits and the Copyright Office in holding that 17 U.S.C. § 411 requires referral to the Copyright Office where there is no indicia of fraud or material error as to the work at issue in the subject copyright registration.

In the circuit court decision, Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P. (9th Cir. May 29, 2020), the Ninth Circuit held that once a defendant alleges that (1) a plaintiff’s certificate of registration contains inaccurate information, (2) “the inaccurate information was included on the application for copyright registration” and (3) the inaccurate information was included on the application “with knowledge that it was inaccurate,” a district court is required to submit a request to the Register of Copyrights “to advise the court whether the inaccurate information, if known, would have caused [it] to refuse registration.”




Supreme Court to Consider Fraudulent Intent in Copyright Registration

The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to consider whether a copyright registration accurately reflecting a work can nevertheless be invalidated without fraudulent intent. Unicolors Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz LP, Case No. 20-915 (Supr. Ct. June 1, 2021) (certiorari granted)

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court decision awarding Unicolors a copyright infringement award of $800,000 as well as attorneys’ fees. The Ninth Circuit ruled that although Unicolors improperly registered the copyright (in a fabric design) as part of a “single-unit registration,” the district court was wrong to find intent to defraud the US Copyright Office—a requirement for invalidating a registration.

The issue presented is:

Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit erred in breaking with its own prior precedent and the findings of other circuits and the Copyright Office in holding that 17 U.S.C. § 411 requires referral to the Copyright Office where there is no indicia of fraud or material error as to the work at issue in the subject copyright registration.




Blueprint Blooper: Floor Plan Copyright Infringement Requires Virtually Identical Copying

Addressing whether a home builder’s floor plans infringed the plaintiff’s architectural copyrights, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a lower court’s entry of summary judgment against the plaintiff, finding that only a virtually identical design would infringe the plaintiff’s “thin copyright” in its floor plans. Design Basics, LLC v. Signature Construction, Inc., Case No. 19-2716 (7th Cir. Apr. 23, 2021) (Sykes, J.)

Design Basics, described bluntly by the Seventh Circuit as a “copyright troll,” holds copyrights in thousands of floor plans for suburban single-family homes. Design Basics sued Signature Construction (Signature) for infringement of 10 of its designs. Discovery showed that Signature held copies of four of Design Basics’ designs, one of which had been marked up by a Signature employee. Signature moved for summary judgment, relying on a 2017 Seventh Circuit opinion in Basic Designs v. Lexington Homes in which the Court found that Design Basics’ copyright protection in its floor plans was “thin.” The district court granted summary judgment against Design Basics, and this appeal followed.

Relying heavily on Lexington Homes, the Seventh Circuit took the opportunity to clarify the elements of a prima facie case of copyright infringement for works with “thin” copyright protection. The Court explained that to establish infringement, the plaintiff must prove (1) ownership of a valid copyright and (2) copying of original elements of the work. Because ownership was not contested in this case, the Court focused on the copying element. The Court explained that “copying” constitutes two separate questions: Whether the defendant actually copied the plaintiff’s protected work (as opposed to creating it independently) and whether the copying constituted wrongful copying, also known as unlawful appropriation.

Because there is rarely direct evidence of copying, circumstantial evidence may be used to infer actual copying, the Seventh Circuit explained. Proving actual copying by circumstantial evidence requires evidence of access to the plaintiff’s work and evidence of substantial similarity between the two works. The analysis of substantial similarity is not limited to the protected elements of the plaintiff’s work; any similarities may be probative of actual copying. However, the unlawful appropriation prong requires substantial similarities to the protected elements of the copyrighted work. The Court noted that the use of the same term for two different tests has caused confusion, and therefore implemented the term “probative similarity” when referring to actual copying, and “substantial similarity” in the case of unlawful appropriation. The Court went on to explain that in the case of thin copyright protection such as this, proving unlawful appropriation requires more than a substantial similarity; only a “virtually identical” plan will infringe.

The Seventh Circuit then turned to the issues of scènes à faire and merger. Citing its detailed analysis in Lexington Homes, the Court noted that arrangements of rooms in Design Basics’ floor plans were largely scènes à faire, deserving no copyright protection. For example, placement of the dining room near the kitchen and a bathroom near the bedrooms is rudimentary, commonplace and standard, and [...]

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