In the latest appeal of a copyright infringement dispute, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court’s finding that the copyright owner’s photographs were not part of a single compilation for purposes of awarding statutory damages. VHT, Inc. v. Zillow Grp., Inc., Case Nos. 22-35147; -35200 (9th Cir. June 7, 2023) (McKeown, Fletcher, Gould, JJ.)
VHT is a professional real estate photography studio that real estate brokerages and listing services hire to photograph properties. VHT retouches the photographs, saves them in its photo database and licenses them to its clients for marketing purposes. In 2015, VHT sued Zillow for copyright infringement based on Zillow’s display of VHT photographs on its real estate listing website and on its Digs home design website. The district court found that Zillow was not liable for displaying VHT photographs on its real estate listing website or for displaying untagged, unsearchable VHT photographs on its Digs home design website. However, the district court found that Zillow’s display of tagged, searchable VHT photographs on Digs constituted infringement and that the searchability functionality was not fair use.
The parties cross-appealed, and the Ninth Circuit considered the issue of infringement in a 2019 decision (Zillow I). In this prior appeal, the Ninth Circuit agreed that Zillow’s display of VHT photographs on its real estate listing website was not copyright infringement, while Zillow’s display of searchable VHT photographs on its Digs home design website constituted infringement and was not fair use. The Ninth Circuit also reversed the jury’s finding that Zillow had willfully infringed 2,700 searchable VHT photographs displayed on Digs and remanded for consideration of whether the searchable photographs were a compilation for purposes of awarding statutory damages. On remand, the district court found that the photographs were not a compilation and awarded statutory damages of $200 for each innocently infringed photograph and $800 for each remaining photograph.
The district court also considered the impact of the Copyright Act’s preregistration requirement and Fourth Estate v. Wall-Street (Supreme Court, 2019) on VHT’s ability to sue. In accordance with Ninth Circuit precedent holding that registration is made when the Copyright Office receives a completed registration application, VHT had sued Zillow for copyright infringement after applying for copyright registration. However, the works were not registered until after the suit was filed. Just 11 days before Zillow I was decided, in Fourth Estate, the Supreme Court held that registration is made when the Copyright Office has registered a copyright after examination—not when the application is filed. Zillow argued that VHT’s claims should be dismissed because VHT did not satisfy the preregistration requirement. The district court excused the exhaustion requirement because dismissal would result in a massive waste of resources. The parties again cross-appealed.
Preregistration and Fourth Estate
Addressing the preregistration issue, the Ninth Circuit agreed that dismissal was not required. The decision to excuse compliance with a non-jurisdictional exhaustion requirement is based on whether the claim is wholly collateral to the substantive [...]