The Supreme Court of the United States issued a unanimous decision invalidating the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (CRCA), a 1990 statute intended to provide copyright owners with the power to sue a US state government for infringement, and held that states cannot be sued for copyright infringement. Allen v. Cooper, Case No. 18-877 (Supr. Ct. Mar. 23, 2020) (Kagan, Justice) (Thomas, Justice, concurring) (Breyer and Ginsburg, Justices, concurring).

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The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed that “lightly sketched anthropomorphized characters representing human emotions” were not copyrightable. Daniels v. Walt Disney Co., Case No. 18-55635 (9th Cir. Mar. 16, 2020) (McKeown, J.).

Denise Daniels created The Moodsters Company. The Moodsters were five named characters, each color-coded to an emotion. The Moodsters Company developed a pitchbook in 2005, a pilot episode for television in 2007, and toys and books of a second generation of The Moodsters by 2013. Daniels and The Moodsters Company also pitched The Moodsters to Disney. In 2010, Disney began developing a movie about five anthropomorphized emotions called Inside Out.

Daniels brought a claim of copyright infringement against Disney. After the district court granted Disney’s motion to dismiss, Daniels appealed.


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Addressing for the first time the issue of implied copyright sublicenses, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that where a copyright license provides an unrestricted right to grant sublicenses, a copyright licensee may do so impliedly and without express language. Photographic Illustrators Corp. v. Orgill, Case No. 19-1452 (1st Cir. Mar. 13, 2020) (Kayatta, J.).

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Ruling en banc, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reinstated a 2016 jury verdict, finding that the rock band Led Zeppelin and the opening notes of its hit song “Stairway to Heaven” did not infringe the 1967 song “Taurus” by the band Spirit. Michael Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin et al., Case No. 16-56057 (9th Cir., March 9, 2020) (en banc) (McKeown, J.) (Bea and Ikuta, JJ., dissenting).

The en banc decision addressed a “litany of copyright issues”—the most critical being the interplay between the 1909 and 1976 Copyright Acts and the Court’s reversal of its own precedent in rejecting a doctrine occasionally referred to as the “inverse ratio rule”—when it concluded that, regardless of a copyrighted work’s fame, all plaintiffs must satisfy the same standard of proof in showing that an allegedly infringing work is substantially similar to the copyrighted work.


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The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed that plaintiffs-appellees’ temporary artwork had achieved appropriate stature to be protected by the rarely invoked Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), and that an award of statutory damages was warranted for defendants-appellants’ willful unlawful actions. Jonathan Cohen, et al. v. G&M Realty L.P., et al., Case Nos. 18-498, -538 (2nd Cir. Feb. 20, 2020) (Parker, J).

VARA established a structure of moral rights that gives the author of a work of visual art the right to “prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature,” and provides that “any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation” of VARA. The act also contains specific language prohibiting the removal or destruction of artwork incorporated into a building absent certain written waivers or notice provisions, which are detailed in the statute.


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Executive Summary

In many ways, copyright jurisprudence in 2019 was a study in contrasts. While certain cases represented a “back to basics” approach, answering fundamental questions such as “When can a copyright owner sue for copyright infringement?” and “What costs can a prevailing copyright owner recover?,” others addressed thorny issues involving fair use and the first sale doctrine.

In the wake of several pivotal copyright decisions involving the music industry in 2018, such as the watershed “Blurred Lines” verdict, disputes involving music continued to provide fuel for the courts to weigh in on copyright this year. As we look to 2020, all eyes will be on the Supreme Court and its decision in the epic battle between Google and Oracle and the protectability of software. This report provides a summary of 2019’s important copyright decisions with the hopes of assisting those navigating copyright infringement and enforcement issues in the coming year.


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Executive Summary

The last year of the 2010s has been prolific in terms of important new pieces of legislation and case law within the European Union, and in France and Germany in particular. Indeed, the European Parliament and the EU Council adopted in April 17, 2019, a controversial directive (Directive 2019/790 on copyright and related rights in the Digital Single Market) imposing on online content-sharing service providers—such as YouTube—a new liability system, based on popularity, time and turnover criteria. This directive was created to encourage these service providers to make greater efforts in fighting copyright counterfeiting on their platforms. In France, the PACTE law, which went into force on May 22, 2019, introduced new material changes—namely the strengthening of the French patent office granting procedure (extension of examination scope) and the introduction of patent opposition proceedings before the French patent office. These two legislations greatly influenced EU and French IP law across the year.


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On an issue of first impression in a copyright infringement dispute out of the Southern District of Texas, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit confirmed that failure to mitigate is not a complete defense to copyright or Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) claims for statutory damages. Energy Intelligence Grp., Inc. et. al., v. Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors, LP, et. al., Case No. 18-20350 (5th Cir., January 15, 2020) (Higginson, J.).

In 2014, energy industry publisher Energy Intelligence Group, Inc. and its affiliated entity in the United Kingdom (together, EIG) filed suit against energy securities investment firm Kayne Anderson Capital Advisers (KA), alleging copyright infringement and abuses of the DMCA based on a KA partner’s violation of US copyright law and violation of his subscription agreement for EIG’s Oil Daily newsletter, which provides news and analysis about the North America petroleum industry. The jury in the district court proceeding found that EIG could have reasonably avoided almost all of the alleged copyright and DMCA violations through real-time investigations and enforcement efforts, and thus awarded EIG just over $500,000 in statutory damages for the infringement of 39 works of authorship. The district court, however, still applied the Copyright Act’s fee shifting provisions and awarded EIG over $2.6 million in attorney’s fees and costs. The parties’ consolidated appeals to the Fifth Circuit thus presented an issue of first impression: namely, whether the failure to mitigate copyright infringement is a complete defense to liability for statutory damages under the Copyright Act and the DMCA.


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The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has reversed a district court ruling awarding statutory copyright damages for pre-registration infringements, explaining that the statute bars such an award even when the post-registration infringement of exclusive rights of the copyright holder is different from the pre-registration act(s). Southern Credentialing Support Services, LLC v. Hammond Surgical Hospital, LLC, Case No. 18-31160 (5th Cir. Jan. 9, 2020) (Costa, J.). This case analyzes § 412 of the US Copyright Act, which bars an award of statutory damages for infringements commenced prior to registration of a copyright.

Credentialing is a process doctors must complete to practice at hospitals, and credentialing service providers verify the information doctors provide. Southern Credentialing Support Services (SCSS) began providing credentialing services to Hammond in 2010, and designed two packets of custom forms for credentialing uses by Hammond. After SCSS stopped providing services to Hammond in 2013, Hammond contracted with another provider for credentialing services and continued to use some of the forms developed by SCSS. By 2017, the new provider for Hammond had also made the SCSS forms available online. SCSS did not obtain copyright registration for its forms until 2014, after learning that Hammond was still using some of the SCSS forms. After the parties failed to resolve the dispute amicably, SCSS sued Hammond for copyright infringement.


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The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a nonprofit licensor of copyrighted math materials against a commercial duplicating company that copied the materials for licensee school districts for a fee. Great Minds v. Office Depot, Inc., Case. No. 18-55331 (9th Cir. Dec. 27, 2019) (Farris, J).

Great Minds publishes a copyrighted math curriculum called Eureka Math, which it licenses royalty-free to schools and school districts for “noncommercial” uses. The licensees are permitted to make copies of the materials for their own use. Great Minds reserves the right to collect royalties when the materials are used for “other than noncommercial” purposes.


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