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IP Ownership Considerations in Multi-jurisdictional Software Development Agreements

As a result of the healthcare sector’s growing dependence on software, health IT companies are increasingly taking advantage of globalisation to engage contractors in low wage jurisdictions to develop their user-facing software applications. This can trigger unforeseen legal risks owing to the differing laws across jurisdictions related to the ownership and transfer of intellectual property (IP) rights.

At the most extreme end, best practices in some jurisdictions are unenforceable or even impermissible in others. In view of these issues, it is strongly recommended that a company looking to take advantage of cross-border contracting for critical development eorts should carefully consider the choice of law provisions in their agreements, and engage with local counsel to ensure proper vesting of intellectual property rights.

An inability to demonstrate proper ownership of such rights can be a substantial obstacle for later financings or in corporate activities. Depending on the jurisdictions involved, a contracting company may need to concern itself with at least three types of IP in the software that is developed on its behalf: copyrights, moral or author’s rights, and patents.

Click here to read the full article in our latest edition of International News.




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.




Not With a Bang but a Whimper

In a non-precedential Order issued by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit—on remand from the US Supreme Court’s April 2021 decision upholding Google’s fair use defense to Oracle’s copyright infringement claim—the Court recalled its mandate in the case “solely with respect to fair use,” leaving intact the Federal Circuit’s May 2014 judgment favoring Oracle on the question of copyrightability. Oracle America Inc. v. Google LLC, Case Nos. 17-1118; 1202 (Fed. Cir. May 14, 2021)(PER CURIAM). After recalling its mandate, the Federal Circuit issued its order without further briefing by the parties.




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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Fourth Estate Registration Requirement Defeats Pro Se Copyright Infringement Plaintiff

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed dismissal of a copyright infringement claim for failure to register the copyright, and affirmed summary judgment against plaintiff on related state law claims where the plaintiff was deemed to have admitted statements that undermined its claims. Foss v. Marvic Inc., Case No. 20-1008 (1st Cir. Apr. 12, 2021) (Lynch, J.)

In 2006, sunroom purveyor Marvic contracted with graphic designer Foss to create a marketing brochure. Foss presented a $3,000 estimate, which Marvic paid, and Marvic began using the brochure soon after. In 2018, Foss (pro se) filed suit, demanding $264,000 for alleged copyright infringement on the basis that in 2016, she discovered that Marvic had been using a modified version of the brochure in print and online without asking for or receiving her permission. Foss alleged inaccurately that she had “applied for official U.S. Copyright Registrations” for the brochure.

Marvic moved to dismiss, and Foss filed an amended complaint stating six causes of action, including copyright infringement and five state-law claims. Foss alleged that she had registered the brochure with the US Copyright Office, but in fact she had only applied (after filing the original complaint) for registration. Marvic moved to dismiss the copyright and breach of contract claims. Foss did not oppose, and the district court dismissed the case. Foss then moved to reopen the case, a motion that the district court granted. Foss filed an opposition to Marvic’s earlier motion to dismiss and retained counsel, who first appeared on the day the district court heard Marvic’s motions.

In support of dismissal, Marvic argued that Foss had not established registration of her copyright, noting the then-existing circuit split as to whether mere application or successful registration was required to support a claim of infringement in federal court. The First Circuit stayed the case pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Fourth Estate. After the Supreme Court held that successful registration is required, the district court lifted the stay and dismissed the copyright claim but not the breach of contract claim.

Later, Marvic served a request for admissions, to which Foss’s counsel failed to respond. Marvic moved that the statements in its request be deemed admitted. The district court granted the motion. Two weeks later, Foss’s counsel moved to withdraw, having been suspended from the practice of law.

Foss, pro se again, moved for reconsideration and for more time to respond to the request for admissions, but the district court denied the motions. Marvic moved for summary judgment on the state law claims, which the district court granted, largely relying on Foss’s deemed admissions. Foss appealed.

The First Circuit held that it was not error to dismiss Foss’s copyright claim under Fourth Estate. The Court rejected as waived Foss’s argument that the district court should have stayed the case pending registration since Foss had not sought such relief below. The Court also rejected Foss’s argument that dismissal became improper when the failure to register was cured since the [...]

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Purple Pain: Warhol’s Prince Series Isn’t Fair Use of Photographer’s Image

In a case spanning nearly 40 years of art and touching the estates of two of the world’s most well-known artists, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit clarified its position on the application of the fair use doctrine and its protection of transformative works. In doing so, the Second Circuit reversed the district court’s finding of fair use and held that a series of prints and illustrations of the musical artist Prince created by the visual artist Andy Warhol were substantially similar to a 1981 portrait photograph of Prince taken by the photographer Lynn Goldsmith. The Court remanded for further proceedings. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Lynn Goldsmith, et al., Case No. 19-2420-cv (2d Cir. Mar. 26, 2021) (Lynch, J.) (Sullivan, J., joined by Jacobs, J., concurring) (Jacobs, J., concurring).

In 1984, Goldsmith’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 Goldsmith 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 also used the photograph to create an additional 15 silkscreen prints and illustrations, known as the Prince Series. In 2017, Goldsmith notified The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (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 Goldsmith’s photograph. Goldsmith 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. Goldsmith appealed.

The appeal required the Second Circuit to consider, de novo, 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; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The Court focused its analysis on the first fair use factor, and specifically the extent to which the Prince Series works were transformative of the original. The transformative nature of a work is determined by whether the new work merely supersedes the “objects of the original creation,” or whether it “instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message.” The Court noted that the assessment of a transformative work is less clear where the [...]

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Freeze Frame: EU Copyright Holders Entitled to Restrict Framing

In a case referred by German authorities, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) resolved a dispute between a visual arts copyright collecting society and a cultural heritage foundation involving a digital library that includes images and links to the institution providing the subject matter. The CJEU affirmed that the principle of the right of communication to the public is subject to technical measures to prevent infringement. VG Bild-Kunst v. Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Case C-392/19 (CJEU, 9 March 2021) (Grand Chamber).

Takeaways:

  • Framing and inline linking remain generally permitted. Both forms of linking do not necessarily constitute an act governed by copyright law.
  • Where the copyright holder has adopted or obliged licensees to employ, measures to restrict framing so as to limit access to its work from websites other than that of its licensees, framing must be authorized by the rights holders concerned.

Framing

At the core of this decision is “framing.” The technique of framing consists of dividing a website page into several frames and posting within one of them, by means of a clickable link or an embedded internet link (inline linking), an element from another site in order to hide from users the original environment to which that element belongs.

Background

The decision was based on a request for a preliminary ruling in proceedings between VG Bild-Kunst, a visual arts copyright collecting society in Germany, and SPK, a German cultural heritage foundation. The proceedings concerned VG Bild-Kunst’s refusal to conclude a license agreement with SPK for the use of its catalogue of works unless the agreement contained a provision obliging SPK as a licensee, when using protected work and subject matter covered by that agreement, to implement effective technological measures to prevent third parties from framing such protected work or subject matter.

The German Federal Court of Justice referred the following question to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling:

Does the embedding of a work—which is available on a freely accessible website with the consent of the right holder—in the website of a third party by way of framing constitute communication to the public of that work within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/29 where it circumvents protection measures against framing adopted or imposed by the right holder?

The Decision

The CJEU’s reasoning behind the above ” takeaways” is that by adopting or obliging licensees to employ, technological measures limiting access to works from websites other than those on which the copyright owner has authorized communication to the public of such works, a copyright holder is deemed to have expressed its intention to attach qualifications to its authorization to communicate those works to the public by means of the internet, in order to confine the public for those works solely to the users of one particular website.

Consequently, where the copyright holder has adopted or obliged licensees to employ, measures to restrict framing so as to limit access to its work from websites other than that of its [...]

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Subscription to RSS Feed Doesn’t Trigger Implied-License Defense

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 [...]

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Ahoy There : If License Terms Not Clearly Intended to Be a Condition Precedent, It’s a Covenant

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the US Court of Federal Claims erred by failing to consider defendant’s non-compliance with the terms of an implied license, vacating the claims court’s finding of non-infringement and remanding the case for a calculation of damages. Bitmanagement Software GmbH v. U.S., Case No. 20-1139 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 25, 2021) (O’Malley, J.) (Newman, J., concurring).

Bitmanagement Software filed suit against the US government for infringement of its copyrighted graphics-rendering software, BS Contact Geo. The claims court found that Bitmanagement had established a prima facie case of copyright infringement based on the US Navy’s copying of the software onto all computers in the Navy Marine Corps Intranet, but found that the Navy was not liable for infringement because Bitmanagement had granted the Navy an implied license to make such copies. Bitmanagement appealed, arguing that:

  • The claims court erred in finding an implied-in-fact license between the parties.
  • An implied-in-fact license was precluded as a matter of law.
  • Even if an implied-in-fact license existed, the claims court erred by failing to consider whether the Navy had complied with the terms of the license.

The Federal Circuit did not disturb the claims court’s findings with respect to the existence of an implied license authorizing the Navy to make copies of Bitmanagement’s software.

The Federal Circuit further declined to apply its preclusion rule as set forth in Seh Ahn Lee, i.e., that “the existence of an express contract precludes the existence of an implied-in-fact contract dealing with the same subject matter,” because the Navy and Bitmanagement never actually entered into an express contract with one another. Rather, both parties entered into express contracts with a third party, Planet 9, through which they intentionally chose to conduct their business. The express contracts “do not capture or reflect the discussions that occurred between the Navy and Bitmanagement directly,” nor do they cover the topic of the implied license between the parties, “i.e., the license to copy BS Contact Geo onto all Navy computers.”

With respect to Bitmanagement’s claim that the Navy failed to comply with the terms of the implied license, the Court considered whether a term requiring the Navy’s use of Flexera, a license-tracking software, was a condition that limited the scope of the license, or merely a covenant. The Court explained that a term of a license is presumed to be a covenant—addressable only in contract—rather than a condition, unless it is clear that the term was intended to be a condition precedent. Accepting the lower court’s factual findings that “Bitmanagement agreed to [the] licensing scheme because Flexera would limit the number of simultaneous users of BS Contact Geo, regardless of how many copies were installed on Navy computers,” the Court found that the required use of Flexera was a condition of the license. The Court found there was no reason Bitmanagement would have entered into an implied license that allowed mass copying of its software without the use of Flexera because, absent [...]

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A Closed Book: No Past Infringement, No Reading Between the Lines into the Future

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, finding no current or future copyright infringement. OverDrive Inc. v. Open E-Book Forum dba International Digital Publishing Forum, Case No. 20-3432 (6th Cir. Jan. 27, 2021) (Sutton, J.)

OverDrive is a digital reading platform and a member of International Digital Publishing Forum, a nonprofit trade association dedicated to the development of electronic publishing standards. The Forum has an intellectual property policy, approved by Overdrive and its other members, which provides that while its members retain copyrights in their contributions, they also grant the Forum a license to “reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, display, and create derivative works” of any copyrighted contributions to EPUB, the leading eBook file format. The license also allowed the Forum to sublicense others to do the same.

In 2016, the Forum entered into an asset-transfer agreement with the World Wide Web Consortium, an international organization dedicated to developing web standards. The agreement granted the Consortium a “license to use” the Forum’s intellectual property to carry out digital publishing activities. The agreement further provided that the Forum would dissolve and its intellectual property rights, including any in EPUB, would be owned by the Consortium. The Consortium began developing improvements to EPUB. Shortly thereafter, the Forum and the Consortium entered into a second agreement, which provided that the Consortium’s license to “use” the intellectual property encompassed a license to “reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, display and create derivative works.” In the second agreement the Forum agreed to begin the dissolution process only if and only when it transferred its intellectual property to the Consortium.

OverDrive sought a declaratory judgment that the Forum had violated and would violate its copyrights in EPUB. OverDrive claimed that the Forum infringed its copyrights by giving the Consortium access to EPUB. At the close of discovery, the Forum moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted for two reasons. First, it found that the Forum’s license defeated the infringement claim. Second, it found the claim for future infringement was not ripe. OverDrive appealed.

The Sixth Circuit agreed that the “use” license granted by Overdrive gave the Forum the right to “reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, display and create derivative works” of Overdrive’s EPUB copyrights, and permitted the Forum to use the copyrighted work in these ways. The license also gave the Forum an unrestricted right to grant sublicenses with respect to those same copyrights. In turn, the appellate court concluded that the Forum permissibly sublicensed EPUB to the Consortium, including any of OverDrive’s copyrights in EPUB.

In support of its claims of future copyright infringement, OverDrive argued that once the Forum dissolved, the Consortium would lose its sublicense and its work on EPUB would then constitute copyright infringement. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. The ripeness doctrine two-question inquiry asks:

  • Does the claim arise in a concrete factual context and concern a dispute that is likely to come to pass?
  • What is the hardship [...]

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