implied license
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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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