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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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No Matter How Many Touched the Flowers, Single Infringement Begets Single Statutory Damages Award

In a dispute over the alleged infringement of a floral print textile design, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the plaintiff’s ownership of a valid copyright, but reversed and remanded for further proceedings on the issue of statutory damages, finding that the Copyright Act permits only a single award of statutory damages where multiple named defendants infringed one work. Desire, LLC v. Manna Textiles, Inc., et al., Case No. 17-56641 (9th Cir. Feb. 2, 2021) (Bennett, J.) (Wardlaw, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part). Judge Wardlaw’s dissent argued that the majority’s ruling limiting statutory damage awards was contrary to controlling Ninth Circuit precedent

Desire, a Los Angeles-based fabric supplier, sued Manna Textiles and several manufacturer and retail defendants for willful copyright infringement when Manna created a fabric design based on Desire’s two-dimensional floral print textile design, which Desire registered with the US Copyright Office in June 2015. Manna sold the copied floral textile design to the other defendants, which created and sold women’s garments made from the fabric.

After a jury trial, the jury found that Manna and two other defendants willfully infringed Desire’s textile design, and that two other defendants innocently infringed the design, and awarded statutory damages ranging from $10,000 to $150,000 against each defendant. The defendants appealed.

The Ninth Circuit readily affirmed the district court’s holding that Desire owned a valid copyright in its textile design, and noted that the district court was correct to extend broad copyright protection to the design. In particular, the Court confirmed that the Desire floral textile was sufficiently original and independently created, and that the originality of the stylized (rather than “lifelike”) flowers warranted broad protection.

The Ninth Circuit dedicated the majority of its opinion to its finding that the district court erred in permitting multiple awards of statutory damages. First, the Court determined that the district court correctly apportioned joint and several liability among the defendants by assessing which defendants were responsible for which acts of infringement based on the defendants’ distribution or sale of the fabric among one another or to end consumers. In short, based on a particular defendant’s upstream or downstream position in the distribution chain, and the “but for” cause of infringement within the chain, a defendant could be jointly and severally liable with certain other defendants, but not all defendants could be jointly and severally liable with all other defendants.

When statutory damages under 17 USC § 504(c)(1) (c)(1) are elected in lieu of actual damages and profits, ) the number of statutory damages awards available in a particular matter depends on the number of individual works infringed and the number of separate infringers. Here, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that there was only one work at issue (Desire’s floral print textile) and considered whether the Copyright Act authorizes multiple statutory damages awards where one infringer is jointly and severally liable with all other infringers, but the other infringers are not completely jointly and severally liable with one another. “No” was [...]

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Use of Infringing Product, Misappropriated Trade Secrets May Continue—for a Licensing Fee

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s stay of a permanent injunction against copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation, permitting the infringer to continue use of an infringing product and misappropriated trade secrets but requiring the infringer to pay a licensing fee. ECIMOS, LLC v. Carrier Corp., Case Nos. 19-5436, -5519 (6th Cir. Aug. 21, 2020) (Boggs, J.).

Carrier sold HVAC systems. ECIMOS designed and sold a quality-control-testing system that assessed each HVAC unit at the end of Carrier’s assembly line. ECIMOS’s system consisted of a software program, associated hardware and a database that stored results of runtests performed by the system. Carrier paid ECIMOS to maintain and periodically upgrade its software system. ECIMOS licensed Carrier to use the system but prohibited unauthorized copying, distributing or creating derivative works based in whole or in part on the software.

Years into the relationship, ECIMOS upgraded its software to run on a new operating system. ECIMOS expected Carrier to agree to the proposed upgrade just as it had done previously. Unbeknownst to ECIMOS and without its consent, Carrier had already installed ECIMOS’s software directly onto the new operating system. Carrier started a venture with a third party, Amtec, to develop a new quality-control software and storage database to replace the ECIMOS system.

ECIMOS sued Carrier for violating the copyright on the ECIMOS system’s database, breaching the parties’ software-licensing agreement and misappropriating ECIMOS’s trade secrets. At trial, ECIMOS alleged that Carrier improperly shared ECIMOS’s copyrights and trade secrets with Amtec, allowing Amtec to develop a competing system. The jury agreed, finding that the competing system incorporated ECIMOS’s trade secrets. The jury determined that Carrier infringed the copyright on ECIMOS’s runtest database script source code, that ECIMOS held a trade secret in its software source code and its assembled hardware drawings and wiring diagrams, and that Carrier misappropriated those trade secrets by sharing them with Amtec. The jury awarded ECIMOS copyright and contract damages.

The district court also imposed a permanent injunction against Carrier’s use of the infringing Amtec database, but stayed the injunction until Carrier developed a noninfringing database. The court also enjoined Carrier from further disclosure of ECIMOS’s trade secrets, but did not enjoin Carrier from using those trade secrets. To the contrary, the district court appointed a special master to supervise the redesign and permitted Carrier to continue using the infringing database that incorporated ECIMOS’s trade secrets until the redesigned system was complete. The district court further required Carrier to pay ECIMOS the licensing fees that ECIMOS would have charged in the course of an ongoing, mutually agreeable licensing relationship. ECIMOS objected to the stay and appealed.

ECIMOS argued that the stay was an abuse of discretion, that the injunction should have prohibited Carrier from using (not just disclosing) ECIMOS’s trade secrets, and that the injunction should have prohibited Carrier’s disclosure and use of ECIMOS’s assembled hardware, not just the hardware drawings and wiring diagrams. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, affirming in full the district court’s [...]

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More Than a Feeling: No Fees for Frivolous Claim Where “Perceived Wrongs Were Deeply Felt”

Addressing the appropriateness of the district court’s decision to deny attorneys’ fees relating to a copyright claim it labeled “frivolous,” the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial, despite the strong presumption in favor of awarding fees. Timothy B. O’Brien LLC v. Knott, Case No. 19-2138 (7th Cir. June 17, 2020) (Flaum, J).
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Copyright Damages Limited to Three Years Before Lawsuit Filing

Addressing a myriad of issues relating to copyright law, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that the discovery rule applies for statute of limitations purposes in determining when copyright claims accrue, but damages are limited to three years before filing of the lawsuit. Sohm v. Scholastic Inc., Case Nos. 10-2110, -2445 (2d Cir. May 12, 2020) (Sullivan, J.).

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What’s the Deal with Comedians?: Too Late for Copyright Claim against Seinfeld

In a non-precedential ruling by summary order, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against famed comedian Jerry Seinfeld, finding that the defendant’s claims, which accrued in 2012, were time-barred. Christian Charles v. Jerry Seinfeld, et al., Case No. 19-3335 (2d Cir. May 7, 2020) (Summary Order).

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11th Circuit Tells Guitar Maker to Take a [Pantera] Walk on Delayed Copyright Claims

Affirming a summary judgment in favor of defendant, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit determined that a copyright infringement lawsuit pertaining to the graphic design on a guitar made famous by a late heavy metal guitarist, was time-barred because the plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim was actually a claim of copyright ownership over the design. Buddy Webster v. Dean Guitars, et al., Case No. 19-10013 (11th Cir. Apr. 16, 2020) (Wilson, J.).

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