How Far Can a Long-Arm Statute Reach In Cases of Online Copyright Infringement?

Can a company that has an office in New York sue an Arizona company in the New York Courts solely on the basis that the Arizona company allegedly infringed upon the New York company’s copyright?

In a recent decision, the Court of Appeals of New York considered this question and answered in the affirmative, holding that the location of the copyright holder’s business is more determinative of where the lawsuit should be filed than the site of the alleged infringing action. Penguin Group (USA) Inc. v. American Buddha, 2011 NY Slip Op 2079 (N.Y. 2011).

The defendant, American Buddha, was an Oregon-based non-profit corporation with its principal place of business in Arizona. The company maintained the Ralph Nader Library website, which provided online access to classical literature and other works. Four of the works provided on the site had been published in print format by the plaintiff, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. (“Penguin”), which was based in New York. Penguin sued American Buddha in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, claiming that American Buddha uploaded unauthorized copies of four of Penguin’s books and, in doing so, violated Penguin’s copyrights. 

The District Court granted American Buddha’s motion to dismiss, finding that nothing made the suit amenable to jurisdiction in New York because the books were not copied there. Instead, they were (presumably) copied in Oregon and Arizona, the location of American Buddha’s servers.  Penguin appealed the decision.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit certified to the Court of Appeals of New York the question of interpreting the scope of long-arm jurisdiction under CPLR 302(a)(3)(ii). It allows a court in New York to exercise personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant when the nondomiciliary:

“(3) commits a tortious act without the state causing injury to person or property within the state, except as to a cause of action for defamation of character arising from the act, if he…(ii) expects or should reasonably expect the act to have consequences in the state and derive substantial revenue from interstate or international commerce.”

NY CLS CPLR Sec. 302.

This case involved downloading copyrighted material and allowing it to be available for public access online. Therefore, the Court focused on whether the site of injury refers to the location of the infringing action or the location of the principal place of business of the copyright holder.

The Court acknowledged that the question was more difficult because the alleged infringing behavior took place online. However, it found that “a New York copyright owner alleging infringement sustains an in-state injury pursuant to CLPR 302(a)(ii) when its printed literary work is uploaded without permission onto the Internet for public access.” Id. at 6. “The crux of Penguin’s copyright infringement claim is not merely the unlawful electronic copying or uploading for the four copyrighted books,” the Court held. “Rather, it is the intended consequence of those activities – the instantaneous availability of those copyrighted works on American Buddha’s Web sites for anyone, in New York or elsewhere, with an Internet connection to read and download the books free of charge.” Id. at 6.

Additionally, the Court held that infringing behavior harms a copyright holder in more ways than mere loss of revenue due to the unique bundle of rights granted to the holder. Infringement could diminish their incentive to want to continue to write and publish material, while also impairing their rights to reproduce and distribute copies by sale. As the Court determined, “[t]he injury to a New York copyright holder, while difficult to quantify, is not as remote as a purely indirect financial loss due to the broad spectrum of rights accorded by copyright law.” Id. at 8.

This decision is significant for the developing field of internet law because it notifies parties that their location or the location of their business assets will not shield them from being brought into other states if they are sued for illegally downloading copyrighted material. Those involved in activities that infringe – or even allegedly infringe – another party’s copyright may (under the right circumstances) be brought into the copyright holder’s domicile to defend themselves.

Comments/Questions: gdn@gdnlaw.com

© 2011 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC