LET’S NOT GO CRAZY

babyThe cherubic little fellow pictured on the right is at the center of a closely-watched case involving the “takedown” provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (“DMCA”). His mom, Stephanie Lenz, posted a 30-second YouTube video of the tike “dancing” to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” which can be heard playing in the background. Universal Music, Prince’s publisher, notified YouTube that it had a “good faith belief that the above-described activity is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law” (magic language required by the DMCA) and demanded that the video be removed.  (Fisher-Price, apparently, had no objection to the product placement.)

Ms. Lenz did not take the matter lying down. Although the DMCA takedown provision is designed to protect  third-party internet content services like YouTube from liability for hosting infringing content, it also gives the users of the service who post material subject to a takedown notice certain rights, including the right to demand reinstatement and a cause of action for damages against the copyright owner for “knowingly materially misrepresenting . . . that material or activity is infringing.” Ms. Lenz demanded that the video be “put back” and sued Universal for damages on the ground that it had not, before demanding takedown, considered whether the video was protected under the doctrine of fair use.

Last week, in Lenz v. Universal Music, the Ninth Circuit handed Lenz an important—albeit provisional—victory, holding that a copyright owner is indeed required under the “good faith belief” standard to consider fair use before making a takedown demand.

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BLURRED LINES IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE

The jury has spoken in the Robin Thicke “Blurred Lines” copyright infringement case, finding that the song infringes the copyright on Marvin Gaye’s 1977 “Got to Give it Up” and awarding the Gaye estate  over 7 million dollars in damages. The case has been framed by music industry talking heads and the press as one which deals with the line between “plagiarism” and “homage.” It is true that this case, like most intellectual property cases that go to trial, is about blurry lines and whether they have been crossed, but neither “plagiarism” nor “homage” is a concept that has any legal significance.

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A BFD INDEED: FLO & EDDIE HIT PAYDIRT

floLast year the corporate alter ego of former Turtles frontmen Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman—Flo & Eddie, Inc.—filed a class action lawsuit against Sirius XM. Their claim is that pre-1972 sound recordings, such as the Turtles’s classics “Happy Together” and “Eleanore,” which have no federal copyright protection, are nonetheless protected against unauthorized use under California state law. In a post that included our attempt to summarize the byzantine labyrinth that is music copyright law, we noted the “ambitiousness” of the claim and predicted that the case could have “broad ramifications.” If a decision handed down in the their case this week (and see 11/17/14 update below the fold) holds up on appeal, that post will merit a spot in the pantheon of gross understatement.

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SUPREME COURT SHUTS DOWN AEREO

A few weeks ago, in writing about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Petrella v. MGM, in a post entitled “The Breyer Ascendancy Deferred,” I hazarded a fearless prediction:

I am wagering that Justice Breyer will, despite this setback, be voting with and perhaps writing for the majorities in the two most important IP cases coming down over the next six weeks, American Broadcasting v. Aereo and  Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank.

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Justice Breyer did indeed vote with the majority in Alice Corp. last week, and now he has written for the six-justice majority in Aereo. Surprisingly to me though, Breyer, the leading intellectual property skeptic on the Supreme Court, has written an opinion that strikes down Aereo’s business model as directly infringing TV broadcasters’ exclusive right of public performance on the basis of what I think is a rather tendentious reading of the Copyright Act.

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THE WASHINGTON PRO FOOTBALL FRANCHISE

As has been widely reported, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has ruled that “redskins” is deeply offensive slur and can not be federally registered as a trademark under 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), which prohibits registration of marks that contain “immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”  (We last looked at that statute when the TTAB denied registration to “cock sucker” for rooster-shaped lollipops.)

I am pleased to see this ruling and hope it will add further impetus to the drive to rename the Washington pro football franchise. But in my self-appointed role as debunker of popular press reporting on IP law issues, the past 24 hours have been hell, even putting aside the CNBC personality who asked how the team could go on without “patent” protection. So a few facts are in order.

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CONAN DOYLE ESTATE DOWN FOR THE COUNT

holmesWe have been following the rather swift progress through the courts of Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, a case which raises the fascinating question of when copyright protection on “franchise” literary characters who develop over a series of works, published over a period of many years, expires. Klinger, the editor of books containing original stories based on the Sherlock Holmes character and other elements of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories,  brought an action seeking a declaratory judgment that copyright protection had expired on a long list of Sherlock Holmes story elements which were now in the public domain, excusing him from any obligation to pay royalties to the estate. (See CEASE AND DESIST LETTERS FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE–CONAN DOYLE EDITION for a description of Klinger’s complaint and CONAN DOYLE ESTATE LOSES ROUND 1 for a summary of the district court opinion largely vindicating Klinger’s position.) This week the Seventh Circuit weighed in with an opinion affirming the district court, penned by Circuit Judge Richard Posner. As with any Posner opinion, even affirmances, this one adds original analysis well worth a closer look.

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THE BREYER ASCENDANCY DEFERRED

In some earlier posts (titled The Breyer Ascendancy and the The Breyer Ascendancy, Part IIBull1_L) I have suggested that we may have  reached an inflection point where Justice Breyer is no longer just the Supreme Court’s leading skeptic on intellectual property protection, but where he is primed to lead his colleagues in a major retrenchment of IP protections.  Though I think we will see more evidence of that in some of the decisions still to come down before the end of the current term, yesterday’s 6-3 ruling in Petrella v. MGM, a copyright case brought in 2009 involving Martin Scorsese’s film Raging Bull, which was first released in 1980, shows that there is still a strong constituency on the Court, led by Justice Ginsberg, that is far less hostile to strong copyright protections than is Justice Breyer. Why did a majority allow a copyright infringement case–brought 29 years after the allegedly infringing film was released–to go forward, when the statute of limitations on such cases is three years?

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SPLISH-SPLASH, REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

ss It has been almost 25 years since Laramie, a small Philadelphia-based purveyor of “rack” (read “knockoff”) toys switched roles and scored an enormous hit with its TV-advertised, patented, and SUPER SOAKER® branded line of air pressure water guns. As Laramie’s chief intellectual property enforcer at the time, I remember well several frenetic years of legal activity as we tried, generally successfully, to protect Laramie’s proprietary position against knockoff artists foreign and domestic, and watching with astonishment as the company established new and ever-higher price points for what was still, after all, a rather cheap piece of plastic. Spring was always the busiest time of year, when both the current year’s retail selling season for water guns and the product cycle for the following year’s lines were ramping up. Like Proust’s madeleine, the U.S. District Court for New Jersey’s opinion last week in Buzz Bee Toys v. Swimways Corp., has brought these memories flooding back.

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CONAN DOYLE ESTATE LOSES ROUND 1

holmesEarly this year, we reported on the filing of Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate in the federal district court in Chicago. Leslie Klinger is the editor of a collection, called A Study in Sherlock, containing original stories based on the Sherlock Holmes character and other elements of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. He has prepared a sequel entitled In the Company of Sherlock. The publisher of the first book acceded to demands of the Conan Doyle Estate that it take a license and pay a royalty, but the publisher of the sequel balked, and the book remains unpublished in legal limbo.

Klinger brought an action seeking a declaratory judgment that a long list of Sherlock Holmes story elements—including such characters as Professor Moriarity, Sherlock’s smarter brother Mycroft, his landlord Mrs. Hudson and the Baker Street Irregulars, Dr. Watson’s “thick neck and small moustache,” along with such Holmesian traits as his skills in chemistry, disguise, and maritial arts, his methods of reasoning, and his drug addiction—were in the public domain.

We can now report that on December 23 Klinger got his Christmas wish—a summary judgment declaring that virtually all important Sherlock Holmes story elements are free for public use—albeit with one proviso.

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GOOGLE BOOK SEARCH FAIR USE, JUDGE CHIN HOLDS

We have been following the ups and downs of The Authors Guild, Inc. v. Google, Inc., the long-running copyright dispute over Google’s plan to digitize all the world’s libraries, since the inception of this blog. After the parties’ grand bargain, which had the potential to create a unique on-line repository of virtually all the world’s literature under Google’s auspices, was rejected, primarily due to antitrust concerns, the case came to center on the Google Books search engine, which allows full-text searching of unlicensed copyrighted books, but displays only small “snippets” as search results.

Last time we checked in, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals had decertified the plaintiff class, and ordered Judge Denny Chin to  rule on Google’s fair use defense first. As we noted,  the appellate panel’s “comments at the oral argument and its suggestion that resolution of fair use could ‘moot’ class certification strongly telegraph[ed] acceptance of Google’s arguments that the current iteration of Google book search, by presenting only snippets of copyrighted works, is a transformative research tool.” Not surprisingly, in a 30-page opinion issued November 14, Judge Chin so ruled.

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