Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Perfect 10 v. Google. The case encompasses numerous issues, from section 512 to fair use to the bounds of secondary copyright liability. Here’s a summary of the most interesting parts to me (not to be confused with the most interesting parts to the litigants or to the court):
- Preliminary Injunctions and Fair Use. The court held, for the first time, that in order to get a preliminary injunction in a copyright case, the plaintiff must not only demonstrate a substantial likelihood of proving his prima facie case, but must also demonstrate a substantial likelihood of overcoming any defenses raised by the defendant. First, “the defendant is responsible for introducing evidence of fair use in responding to a montion for a preliminary relief,” then the plaintiff must “show it is likely to succeed in its challenge to the alleged infringer’s evidence.” Slip op. at 5767. The availability of preliminary injunctions in cases where the plaintiff’s prima facie case is easy to prove but the defendant has a strong fair use defense chilled speech, when it didn’t ban it outright. This holding is likely to mean that plaintiffs will rarely get preliminary injunctions in many of the cases copyfighters care about — cases where copying is obvious and the real question is fair use.
- Preliminary Injunctions and Section 512. The court also held that a plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must demonstrate a substantial likelihood of overcoming a defense under 17 USC 512. Section 512 contains its own rules about injunctions, but the court held that because “the DMCA does not change copyright law,” general principles apply. Accordingly, if the defendant raises a section 512 defense, the court first decides whether the defendant is likely to qualify for protection under section 512, then applies the appropriate injunction rules depending on the answer.
- The “Server Test.” In analyzing whether the copyright holder’s display right has been violated, we are told that the “displaying” is performed by the web server, not by the user’s computer. Displaying is “show[ing] a copy;” here, the copy being shown resides on the server, and is shown by transmitting it over the Internet to the user’s computer for display. In a slightly weird turn, the court says that a computer owner displays a work when she “uses the computer to fill the computer screen with the photographic image stored on the computer, or by communicating the stored image electronicallly to another person’s computer” (so the server is doing the displaying in the web context because it stores the image). What’s weird is that right in the middle of this analysis, the court cites MAI v. Peak, which held that copies held in RAM are sufficiently “fixed” to be copies for copyright law purposes. If RAM copies are “fixed” (which they aren’t, but we’ll argue about that another day), why isn’t the user the one displaying the work by “us[ing] the computer to fill the computer screen with the photographic image stores on the computer”? I have to imagine that the fact that web browsers store transmitted images in RAM before displaying them wasn’t before the court.
- In-Lining Images Is Not a Display. Well, it’s not direct infringement, at least. IMG tags and links are just HTML instructions, the court says, and “[p]roviding these HTML instructions is not equivalent to showing a copy.” This is because the HTML doesn’t represent the photographic image; you can’t display the image solely by knowing the URL, because the server the URL is pointing to has to actually serve the image.
- Framing Is Not a Display. Having another site’s content display inside a frame is not infringement, because the content itself is being served by the original website. It might confuse consumers, but the court rightly notes that confusion is dealt with by trademark law, not copyright law.
- Linking is not Distribution. Because the data itself is coming from some other server, linking to infringing content is not a “distribution” of that content. Connectedly, the “deemed distribution” rule from Hotaling (the bad Hotaling, not the good Hotaling) doesn’t apply because Google doesn’t have a copy of the allegedly distributed full-size images, and you can’t distribute something you don’t even possess. (I expect that some will see this as an adoption of the Hotaling rule by the Ninth Circuit, but I think it’s dicta. Napster is bad enough.)
- Art. I, sec. 8, cl.8 Gets Teeth. The court says that courts must be “flexible in applying a fair use analysis,” and that the four fair use factors must be “‘weighed together in light of the purposes of copyright’” (quoting Campbell). And then comes the best part. “The purpose of copyright law is ‘[t]o promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts,” and to serve the welfare of the public” (internal quotations and citations omitted). So courts must weigh the factors together, balancing the benefit to the generation of knowledge that comes from greater protection against the public interest in making fair use of copyrighted works. Excellent. (I’m hoping for summary dispositions in really egregious fair use cases that just say, “The district court failed adequately to consider the Progress of Science and the Useful Arts. VACATED and REMANDED.”)
- Superseding Use. Use that displaces sales of the copyrighted work has rarely been held to be fair use. But here, the court held that even if the defendant’s use supersedes some of the copyright holder’s revenue-generating uses, it can still be fair use if the value to the public from the defendant’s use outweighs the “significance” of the superseding use. This is perhaps the most important holding, in part because it helps to get rid of the circular argument that the copyright holder wanted to license uses like the defendant’s. Even if the copyright holder could have garnered some meager licensing revenue by prohibiting uses like the defendant’s, the “market harm” factor won’t weigh against the defendant if the benefit to the public outweighs the superseded benefit to the copyright holder.
- Evidence of Harm. In order for the “market harm” factor of the fair use analysis to tip in the plaintiff’s favor, the plaintiff must come forward with evidence of actual market harm. Market harm cannot be presumed, and “hypothetical” harm isn’t good enough. This will help to erode further the circular “I could have licensed this use, therefore it is not fair use” argument; on the other hand, it makes the sham “licensing” of use that’s actually fair use all the more pernicious, because it makes the use less likely to be found to be fair use in the future.
- The User’s Local Cache Is Fair Use. The court held that the user’s local web cache is a fair use copy because it is a transformative use — presumably because it is using the image data not as a photograph, but as a means toward faster web-browsing performance. The effect on the copyright holder’s rights is minimal — who’s going to license the image for use in their own local cache? — and the public benefit is significant, so it’s fair use. The court also expressed some doubt that “such automatic copying could constitute direct infringement,” presumably under a CoStar v. Loopnet volitional copying theory.
- Substantial Noninfringing Use. The court held that substantial noninfringing uses for a product defeats a claim for secondary copyright liability based on an infringement-facilitating product design, but does not immunize a defendant from other sources of secondary liability. Thus, for example, if Sony had sent letters to each VCR owner exhorting them to duplicate and sell movies they rented from the video store, Sony would be subject to contributory copyright liability for sending the letters, even though it is not subject to liability for the infringement-facilitating design of its product.
- Imputed Intent. The court held that intent is an element of a claim for contributory copyright infringement. Then, the court effectively read that element back out of the doctrine by holding that intent may be imputed if the defendant knew that infringement was “substantially certain” to result from her action. (Just like in Torts class.)
- Contributory Liability. The court announced a new formulation of the contributory liability doctrine for internet sites: in order to be liable, the defendant must have actual knowledge that specific infringing material is available, and must then fail to take simple measures which would have prevented further damage. The court also called those “simple measures” “reasonable and feasible means.” Recall, however, that compliance with section 512 makes this analysis go away; it removes secondary liability for service providers if its procedures are followed. The district court hadn’t reached the section 512 analysis, so the court remanded this issue.
- Vicarious Liability. As with all forms of secondary liability, a claim for vicarious liability must be based on some underlying act of direct infringement performed by someone. Here, that direct infringement was the unauthorized display of Perfect 10′s images on websites unaffiliated with Google. For a plaintiff to prevail on a claim of vicarious liability, he must show that the defendant has the right and ability to control the direct infringement, but fails to do so. Here, the court found that Google had no right nor ability to control the display of Perfect 10′s images on the unauthorized websites, since Google didn’t run those websites and couldn’t shut them down even if it wanted to. Perfect 10 argued that Google could have shut down the sites’ AdSense accounts, depriving them of revenue, but the court pointed out that doing so would not remove the images from the third-party websites.
It’s a big opinion, with a lot of holdings, but most of them make sense and apply the law correctly. The case now goes back down to the district court for further factfinding and analysis. There’s a dispute over the adequacy of Perfect 10′s section 512 takedown notices, and after Perfect 10 v. CCBill, Google will have a much easier time prevailing on that issue.
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