The Internet Archive Lawsuit

Thomas James (“The Cokato Copyright Attorney”) explains how Hachette Book Group et al. v. Internet Archive, filed in the federal district court for the Southern District of New York on June 1, 2020, tests the limits of authors’ and publishers’ digital rights in their copyright-protected works.

The gravamen of the complaint is that Internet Archive (“IA”) allegedly scanned books and made them freely available to the public via an Internet website without the permission of copyright rights-holders. Book publishers filed this lawsuit alleging that IA’s activities infringe their exclusive rights of reproduction and distribution under the United States Copyright Act.

As of this writing, the case is at the summary judgment stage, with briefing currently scheduled to end in October, 2022. Whatever the outcome, an appeal seems very likely. Here is an overview to bring you up to speed on what the case is about.

The undisputed facts

Per the parties’ stipulation, the following facts are not disputed:

The case involves numerous published books which the publishers who filed this lawsuit (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and John Wiley &  Sons) have exclusive rights, under the United States Copyright Act, to reproduce and distribute.

Internet Archive and Open Library of Richmond are nonprofit organizations the IRS has classified as 501(c)(3) public charities. These organizations purchased print copies of certain books identified in the lawsuit.

The core allegations

The plaintiffs allege that IA obtains print books that are protected by copyright, scans them into a digital format, uploads them to its servers, and then distributes these digital copies to members of the public via a website – all without a license and without any payment to authors and publishers. Plaintiffs allege that IA has already scanned 1.3 million books and plans to scan millions more. The complaint describes this as “willful digital piracy on an industrial scale.”

Defenses?

First sale doctrine

One justification that is sometimes advanced for making digital copies of a work available for free online without paying the author or publisher is the so-called “first sale” doctrine. This is an exception to copyright infringement liability that essentially allows the owner of a lawfully acquired copy of a work to sell, transfer or lend it to other people without incurring copyright infringement liability. For example, a person who buys a print edition of a book may lend it to a friend or sell it at a garage sale without having to get the copyright owner’s permission. More to the point, a library may purchase a copy of a print version of a book and proceed to lend it to library patrons without fear of incurring infringement liability for doing so.

The doctrine does not apply to all kinds of works, but it does generally apply  to print books.

The first sale doctrine only provides an exception to infringement liability for the unauthorized distribution of a work, however. It does not provide an exception to liability for unauthorized reproduction of a work. (See 17 U.S.C. § 109.) Scanning books to make digital copies is an act of reproduction, not distribution. Accordingly, the first sale doctrine does not appear to be a good fit as a defense in this case.

“Controlled digital lending”

Public libraries lend physical copies of the books in their collections to library patrons for no charge.  Based on this practice, a white paper published by David R. Hansen and Kyle K. Courtney makes the case for treating the distribution of digitized copies of books by libraries as fair use, where the library maintains a one-to-one ratio between the number of physical copies of a book it has and the number of digital “check-outs” of the digital version it allows at any given time.

The theory, known as controlled digital lending (“CDL”), relies on an assumption that the distribution of a work electronically is the functional equivalent of distributing a physical copy of it, so long as the same limitations on the ability to “check out” the work from the library are imposed.

Publishers dispute this assumption. They take the position that there are important differences between e-books and print books. They maintain that these differences justify the distribution of e-books under a licensing program separate and distinct from their print book purchasing programs. They also question whether e-books are, in fact, distributed subject to the same limitations that apply to a print version of the book.

Fair use

Whether a particular kind of use of a copyright-protected work is “fair use” or not requires consideration of four factors: (1) the nature of the work; (2) the character and purpose of the use; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion copied; and (4) the effect of the use on the market for the work.

Supporters of free access to copyrighted works for all tend to focus on the “character and purpose” factor. They can be relied upon to argue that free access to literary works is a great benefit to the public. Authors and publishers tend to focus on the other factors. In this case, it seems possible that the factors relating to the amount copied and the effect of the use on the market for the work could weigh against a finding of fair use.  

The federal district court in this case is being called upon to evaluate those factors and decide whether they weigh in favor of treating CDL – or at least, CDL as IA has applied and implemented it – as fair use or not.

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The Cokato Copyright Attorney (Minnesota lawyer Thomas B. James) will be following this case closely. Subscribe for updates as the case makes its way through the courts.

Contact attorney Thomas James

Need help registering a copyright or trademark, or with a copyright or trademark problem? Contact Cokato, Minnesota attorney Tom James.

Copyright Small Claims Court Opens

The Copyright Claims Board (aka “Copyright small claims court”) opened on schedule, on June 16, 2022. Echion CLE is offering educational courses.

The Copyright Claims Board (“copyright small claims court”) launched today (June 16, 2022), on schedule.

The New Copyright Claims Board

The new “copyright small claims court” is not really a court. It is an administrative tribunal. It will, however, function very much like a court.

Court rules, such as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence, do not directly apply.

The new tribunal was created by the CASE Act of 2020. The filing fee is considerably lower than court filing fees. It is empowered to hear and decide copyright infringement and DMCA notification misrepresentation claims. Claims in excess of $30,000 (exclusive of attorney fees and costs) are not eligible.

Some worry it will give copyright trolls more ammunition. There are, however, some provisions in the Act that offer protections from copyright trolls.

Copyright trolls like this guy might try to overuse the Copyright Claims Board (Copyright Small Claims Court)
Copyright troll

“Copyright Small Claims Court” CLE

I will be teaching a CLE webinar for attorneys and paralegals about this new tribunal – jurisdiction, applicable law, procedure, forms (claim, response and counterclaims), evidence, hearings, appeals, potential constitutional challenges, and more.

Dates and times:

June 22, 2022 – Live Webinar – 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. EDT; 12:00 noon to 2:00 p.m. CDT; 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 MDT; 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon PDT/MST; 9:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. AKDT.

July 13, 2022 – Video Replay – 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. EDT; 12:00 noon to 2:00 p.m. CDT; 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 MDT; 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon PDT/MST; 9:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. AKDT.

Attorney CLE credits:

This course has been approved for 2.0 attorney CLE credits by the Minnesota Board of Continuing Legal Education. Because Minnesota is an approved jurisdiction, attorney CLE credits may also be available in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Guam, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Northern Mariana Islands, Wisconsin, and other jurisdictions. Check the Echion CLE course page for information and updates.

Paralegal CLE credits:

NALA has approved this course for 2.0 paralegal continuing education credits.

Cost: $50.

Registration link for the 6/22/2022 webinar: https://us06web.zoom.us/…/651…/WN_y-Xq-od2QKyAPV9WYRM9IQ

Registration link for the 7/13/2022 replay: https://us06web.zoom.us/…/811…/WN_iekZGOfIS6WFl1qynJMImg

Read more about the instructor.

Image: Chris Potter, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Unicolors v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz

Unicolors | Cokato attorney Thomas James shows how Congressional inaction to fix a bad law can lead to unusual interpretive gymnastics in the judicial branch.

By Thomas James, Minnesota attorney

In Fourth Estate Public Benefits Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC, 139 S. Ct. 881, 889 (2019), the United States Supreme Court interpreted 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) to mean that a copyright owner cannot file an infringement claim in federal court without first securing either a registration certificate or an official notice of denial of registration from the Copyright Office. In an Illinois Law Review article, I argued that this imposes an unduly onerous burden on copyright owners and that Congress should amend the Copyright Act to abolish the requirement. Unfortunately, Congress has not done that.

Congressional inaction to correct a harsh law with potentially unjust consequences predictably leads to judicial decisions exercising the power of statutory interpretation to ameliorate the consequences. The Court’s decision today in Unicolors v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, __ U.S. __ (No. 20-915, February 24, 2022) is a case in point.

The district court proceedings

Unicolors owns the copyrights in various fabric designs. The company sued H&M Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), claiming that H&M had infringed them. The jury rendered a verdict in favor of Unicolor, but H&M moved for judgment as a matter of law (notwithstanding the jury verdict). H&M argued that Unicolors had failed to satisfy the requirement of obtaining a registration certificate prior to commencing suit. Although Unicolors had obtained a registration, H&M argued that the registration was not a valid one.

Specifically, H&M argued that Unicolors had improperly applied to register multiple works with a single application. According to 37 CFR § 202.3(b)(4) (2020), a single application cannot be used to register multiple works unless all of the works in the application were included in the same unit of publication. The 31 fabric designs, H&M contended, had not all been first published at the same time in a single unit; some had been made available separately exclusively to certain customers. Therefore, they could not be registered together as a unit of publication.

The district court denied the motion, holding that a registration may be valid even if contains inaccurate information, provided the registrant did not know the information was inaccurate.

The  Ninth Circuit’s reversal

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that Unicolors had failed to satisfy the “single unit of publication” requirement. The Court, however, viewed Unicolors’ characterization of the group of works, in its application, as a “unit of publication” as a mistake of law rather than fact. It is normally a bedrock principle of the law that although mistake of fact may sometimes be asserted as an excuse, ignorance of the law generally cannot be. Since Unicolors had known the relevant facts, namely, that some of the designs had been reserved for some customers separately from the others, its characterization of the group, in the copyright application, as a “unit of publication” was a mistake of law, not fact. Applying the traditional rule that ignorance of the law is not an excuse, the Ninth Circuit held that Unicolor’s registration was not valid.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court’s reversal of the reversal

Section 411(b)(1) says that a registration is valid unless it contains information that the applicant knew was inaccurate. Bucking the traditional maxim that ignorance of the law is not an excuse, the Court interpreted the word know, in this context, to include knowledge of either an applicable fact or an applicable law.  The Court drew upon legislative history suggesting that Congress intended to deny infringers the ability to exploit loopholes.

This is actually a good point. A major objective of international copyright treaties and conventions has been to eliminate formalities in the enforcement of copyrights. Registration is one such formality. One may legitimately ask, however, whether Congress’s decision to impose a requirement of obtaining either a certificate of registration or an official denial of registration from the Copyright Office as a precondition to enforcing a copyright reflected an intention to impose and enforce formalities despite the clear intent of treaties by which the United States has agreed to be bound. Not all other countries impose this formal prerequisite to copyright enforcement. In fact, legal scholars both here and abroad have criticized the United States for enacting and enforcing this formality.

The Court dismissed the traditional legal maxim that ignorance of the law is not an excuse by suggesting it only applies to criminal laws. As Justice Thomas points out in his dissent, however, a requirement to “know” a law (or a legal requirement) ordinarily is satisfied, even in civil cases, by constructive knowledge; actual knowledge is not necessary. Citizens generally are charged with the responsibility of knowing what the laws are, whether they are criminal or civil laws. It is not a defense to the imposition of punitive damages in a tort case, for example, that the defendant did not know that he might be subject to a larger damages award if he acted with intentional or reckless disregard for other people’s rights or lives. That ignorance of the law is not an excuse is a large part of the reason for the existence of legal advisers and the legal profession in general.

Thomas points out that in a previous cases, the Court has distinguished between a “willfulness” requirement, which requires proof of actual knowledge, and a “knowledge” requirement, as to which either actual or constructive knowledge normally may suffice. See Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 201–203 (1991); Intel Corp. Investment Policy Comm. v. Sulyma, 589 U. S. ___ (2020) (slip op., at 6–7). Indeed, the Court has acknowledged that other “knowledge” requirements in the Copyright Act may be satisfied by either actual or constructive knowledge.

Reading between the lines a little, I think there is room for speculation that some members of the Court regard the prelitigation registration requirement as a formality which, as such, is not really in keeping with the spirit of international treaties calling for the abolition of copyright formalities. Rather than allow a formality to stand in the way of an attempt to enforce a copyright, it is conceivable that the Court chose to deploy its power of judicial interpretation to effect what it believed to be the most just result in this case.

Conclusion

Another old legal maxim I remember from law school is “Hard cases make bad law.” It is too soon to tell how the Court’s decision in this case will play out in practice, but the Court’s allowance of an infringement action to proceed despite the fact that the plaintiff provided false information (whether factual or legal) when securing the registration does seem to open a fairly large can of worms.

Of course, the Court’s decision does not rule out a dismissal of an infringement action if the defendant can prove that the plaintiff had actual knowledge that he or she was providing false information at the time of applying for registration. Actual knowledge, however, can be very difficult to prove.

More importantly, how much mileage are courts going to let people get out of a claim that they did not know the law when they applied for registration? For example, will a person who purchases a copy of a book and then files an application to register the copyright in it be allowed to proceed with an infringement claim because he “did not know” that merely buying a copy of a work does not amount to a purchase of the copyright? (cf. these guys.)

Of course, copyright ownership can still be disputed in an infringement proceeding even after the Court’s decision in this case. Except in the rare case where it can be proven that an applicant actually knew his works did not qualify for the kind of registration application he used, however, it seems like the Court’s decision opens up the copyright registration application process to a great deal of potential abuse, at least when the “error” is not obvious enough for the Copyright Office to detect from the face of the application itself.

Once again, I would suggest that perhaps Congress should just consider abolishing the pre-litigation registration requirement.

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