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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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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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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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2020 IP Law Year in Review: Copyrights

Executive Summary

Copyright jurisprudence in 2020 was, in many ways, a study in the scope of copyright protection. While certain courts brought century-year-old precedent to the forefront to interpret the scope of copyrights, other courts ruled overruled 40 years of precedent to even the playing field between popular works and works that are less known.

In the wake of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s pivotal copyright decision in the Led Zeppelin “Stairway to Heaven” lawsuit, several district courts, within and outside California, have relied on the en banc decision to resolve similar issues related to copyright infringement. The defining scope of the Zeppelin decision will have long-lasting effects within the music industry and beyond.

Copyrights

  1. Unprotected Subject Matter
  2. Copyright Infringement – Damages
  3. Music – The Scope of Protection
  4. Music – Royalty Rates for Digital Transmissions
  5. SCOTUS Update – Google v. Oracle

2021 Outlook

There is plenty to look forward to in 2021. We are certain to see big ripples from the Supreme Court decision in Google v. Oracle; whether it will “upend the world” is another story. Certainly the Court may rule on the extent to which software should be afforded copyright protection and the degree to which fair use applies to software copyrights. One thing is for sure—both sides agree that the future of software innovation is at stake. We are also certain to see a rising tide of cases relying on Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin, as we have already seen with the Katy Perry and Ed Sheeran cases. With the elimination of the inverse ratio rule, less popular songs will have a fairer day in court. Finally, once the vaccines allow for the courtroom doors to open again, we expect to see a flood of copyright infringement jury trials that were put on hold in 2020. Indeed, 2021 is looking like a very busy year.

Read the full report.




This Mashup Is Not a Place You’ll Go – Seuss Copyright Will ‘Live Long and Prosper’

Presented with a publishing company defendant’s mashup of Dr. Seuss’ copyrighted works with Star Trek in a work titled Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go!, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit tackled claims of both copyright and trademark infringement, including the defense of fair use and the use of trademarks in expressive works. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of defendants on the copyright infringement claim and affirmed the district court’s dismissal and grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants on the trademark claim. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. v. ComicMix LLC, et al., Case No. 19-55348 (9th Cir. Dec. 18, 2020) (McKeown, J.)

Seuss Enterprises owns the intellectual property in the works of late author Theodor S. Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Seuss Enterprises carefully yet prolifically licenses the Dr. Seuss works and brand across a variety of entertainment, media, art and consumer goods, including derivative works of Dr. Seuss’ final book, and graduation favorite, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! When Seuss Enterprises encountered a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go! mashup work created by ComicMix (a company whose employees include an author of Star Trek episodes), it filed suit for copyright and trademark infringement. The district court granted ComicMix’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the Boldly work was a fair use of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and that Seuss Enterprises did not have a cognizable trademark infringement claim under the Lanham Act. Seuss Enterprises appealed.

On appeal, ComicMix asserted its defense of fair use by arguing that its copying of the Dr. Seuss works (described at one point in the record as painstaking attempts to create “identical” illustrations) resulted in a parody of the works. The Ninth Circuit examined the facts under the four non-exclusive factors of fair use reflected in § 107 of the Copyright Act:

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

Remarking that the outcome of the purpose and character of the use factor influences the assessment of the third and fourth factors, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the Boldly work was not transformative as a parody or otherwise, and that the “indisputably commercial” nature of the work weighed against fair use. The Court explained that a parody exists only if the resulting work critiques or comments on the underlying copyrighted work. The Ninth Circuit cited its decision in another Seuss case (Dr. Seuss Enters. v. Penguin Books), which involved the retelling of the O.J. Simpson murder trial through the lens of The Cat in the Hat. Here, the Court similarly found that Boldly only “evokes” Oh, the Places [...]

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Two Turntables, No Microphone: Using Technical Diagram Is Not Copyright Infringement

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s summary judgment grant with respect to a copyright infringement claim related to technical drawings, and reversed the court’s summary judgment grant related to software source code. RJ Control Consultants, Inc. et al. v. Multiject, LLC, et al., Case No. 20-1009 (6th Cir. Nov. 23, 2020) (Donald, J.)

In 2008, Paul Rogers, through his company RJ Control Consultants (RJC), entered into an oral agreement with his friend Jack Elder, through Elder’s company Multiject. Rogers agreed to develop a rotary turntable control system (not for music, but to control a molding system) for Elder, calling the product “Design 3.”

In 2014, Elder asked Rogers for copies of Design 3’s technical diagrams as well as the software source code “in case something happened” to Rogers. Rogers provided the information to Elder, believing that Elder would not improperly use or disclose the information to others. Three days later, Elder informed Roger that he no longer needed Roger’s services and would instead use RSW Technologies for the assembly and wiring of the system. Elder claimed that he was increasingly concerned with Roger’s pricing and decided to switch out Rogers and RJC for RSW. Multiject and RSW used Design 3, both the technical drawings and the source code, in the assembly and wiring of identical new systems.

In 2016, Rogers obtained two copyright registrations, one for the technical diagrams and one for the source code. RJC filed a complaint for several federal and state law claims, including copyright infringement. Multiject and RSW filed motions for summary judgment on all claims, including dismissal of the copyright claims, which the district court granted. RJC appealed.

Multiject and RSW argued that copyright protection did not extend to the software at issue because the software embodied a procedure, a system and a method of operating an injection molding machine, and that is not eligible for copyright protection. They also argued that the use of copyrighted technical drawings to produce a control system did not constitute copyright infringement of the technical drawings for the same reasons that making a recipe out of a copyrighted cookbook does not constitute copyright infringement of the cookbook. Multiject and RSW asserted that to the extent Rogers sought to protect the “use” of his technical drawings to create something else, he should have sought protection under patent law—not copyright law.

The Sixth Circuit agreed. Because the source code and technical diagrams were registered, the validity of the copyrights was not contested. The Court first considered whether physical copying to reproduce the system contained in the drawings was copyright infringement. The Court noted that whether the drawings were themselves reproduced was a separate question from whether the drawings were used to create the system portrayed in that drawing. The Court found that the “manufacture of the control system from the copyrighted technical drawing was not copyright infringement because the recreation of a control system by using a copyrighted technical drawing is not ‘copying’ for [...]

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By the Book: Unauthorized Material Doesn’t Forfeit Training Guide’s Copyright Protection

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a copyright owner in a lawsuit alleging infringement of the copyright in a home-services training manual, finding that the jury was correctly instructed that a work’s incorporation of some copyrighted content does not invalidate the copyright in the work’s original parts. Hiller LLC v. Success Grp. Int’l Learning Alliance LLC, Case No. 19-6115 (6th Cir. Sept. 23, 2020) (Suhrheinrich, J.).

Hiller is a home-services company providing HVAC services. Hiller was a paying member of Success Group International, which offered customer service training to home services companies. Success Group conducted training courses using manuals copyrighted by its owner, Clockwork Home Services. Hiller sent its employees to Success Group’s courses and had access to the manuals. Clockwork later sold Success Group to another company, but retained ownership of the copyrights in the manuals and granted a perpetual license for use of the manuals in Success Group’s training business.

Hiller later hired a contractor to create a more interactive training guide for its technicians as a replacement for the manuals. To create the guide, the contractor conducted a two-day workshop with Hiller employees and representatives from Success Group. The workshop included a series of interactive brainstorming sessions. One of the manuals was referred to during the workshop. Ultimately the new guide incorporated some content generated at the design workshop. Other “gap-filling” content was taken directly from the manuals. The contractor also added other original content. The contractor assigned its copyright in the guide to Hiller.

The Success Group subsequently conducted a training class using a workbook that closely resembled the guide. Hiller ended its Success Group membership and sued Success Group for copyright infringement for its use of the workbook. Clockwork intervened, alleging that it owned the guide and seeking declaratory relief invalidating Hiller’s copyright in the guide. Following a seven-day trial, a jury concluded that Hiller had a valid copyright in the guide and that the Success Group workbook copied protected elements of the guide. Clockwork moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which the district court denied. Success Group ultimately settled with Hiller. Clockwork appealed.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed. First, the Court found that sufficient evidence supported the jury’s verdict that Hiller owned a copyright in the guide. The Court rejected Clockwork’s two-pronged argument that the guide lacked independently created material (required to meet the Copyright Act’s originality requirement) and that Hiller should lose its copyright because the guide contained content taken from the manuals. Based on its selection and organization, the guide contained enough originality created independently by or on behalf of Hiller (through Hiller’s contractor) to meet the originality threshold for copyright protection. The original material included information and graphical depictions selected and organized at the design workshop. The Court also rejected Clockwork’s argument that Hiller should lose copyright protection because the guide was based on Clockwork’s “copyrighted system.” Copyright protection does not preclude others from copying or using the underlying ideas contained [...]

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