Category Archives: copyright law

May Copyright Infringement Suits Allow the Use of Blanket Subpoenas to Identify Anonymous Users of Potentially Infringing Internet Content? Originally Published Jan 28, 2014

Is it abusive for a company alleging copyright infringement to uncloak the anonymity of users of adult content in an effort to embarrass them into settling marginal claims? That issue was considered by the Court in Amselfilm Productions v. Swarm, 6A6DC, 12-cv-3865.
In that case, the plaintiff clearly was the object of infringing conduct by persons using BitTorrent – a peer to peer method of sharing content anonymously. The only question was whether the plaintiff could issue blanket subpoenas to obtain the IP addresses of the groups (“swarms”) of BitTorrent users and then coerce these individuals to obtain individual settlements with them. The implication was that if these individuals did not settle, their names would be made public, causing embarrassment over the fact that they potentially had downloaded adult content. This became a particularly important issue because so many of the claims of infringement were relatively unsubstantiated, i.e., how does one prove that any one individual within the larger “swarm” specifically downloaded specific content on a specific day?
The Court found that this was a misuse of legal process and procedure and prohibited employing such subpoenas without more of a showing of a particularized set of circumstances. In other words, there would have to be some level of demonstration suggesting that a particular individual had downloaded specific infringing content.
This case is one of many throughout the U.S. in which the practice of issuing blanket subpoenas successfully has been challenged.
© 2014 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

May The Look and Feel of the Tetris Video Game be Protected by The Copyright Act?

Is the look and feel of the Tetris video game distinguishable from the ideas of the game and therefore protectable? In Tetris Holding, LLC v. XIO Interactive, Inc., No. 09-6115 (D.N.J. May 30, 2012), the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey answered this question in the affirmative.

In that case, Plaintiff, Tetris Holdings, LLC sued XIO Interactive, Inc. (“Defendant”) for the Defendant’s marketing of the game called “Mino.”  Plaintiff alleged among other things, copyright infringement and trade dress infringement because the game copied many copyrightable aspects of its Tetris game.  Tetris identified the following fourteen (14) elements that were allegedly copied:

  1. Seven Tetrimino playing pieces made up of four  equally-sized square joined at their sides;
  2. The visual delineation of individual blocks that comprise each Tetrimino piece and the display of their borders;
  3. The bright, distinct colors used for each of the Tetrimino pieces;
  4. A tall, rectangular playfield (or matrix), 10 blocks wide and 20 blocks tall;
  5. The appearance of Tetriminos moving from the top of the playfield to its bottom;
  6. The way the Tetrimino pieces appear to move and rotate in the playfield;
  7. The small display near the playfield that shows the next playing piece to appear in the playfield;
  8. The particular starting orientation of the Tetriminos, both at the top of the screen and as shown in the “next piece” display;
  9. The display of a “shadow” piece beneath the Tetriminos as they fall;
  10. The color change when the Tetriminos enter lock-down mode;
  11. When a horizontal line fills across the playfield with blocks, the line disappears, and the remaining pieces appear to consolidate downward;
  12. The appearance of individual blocks automatically filling in the playfield from the bottom to the top when the game is over;
  13. The display of “garbage lines” with at least one missing block in random order; and
  14. The screen layout in multiplayer versions with the player’s matrix appearing most prominently on the screen and the opponents’ matrixes appearing smaller than the player’s matrix and to the
    side of the player’s matrix.

Id. at 5.

Defendant conceded that it blatantly copied the look and feel of Tetris so that it could make a similar game for the iPhone.  However, Defendant alleged that it was careful not to copy protectable aspects of the game.  Instead, it copied unprotectable elements such as the “rules, function, and expression essential to the game play.” Id. at 7.  Defendant argued that “not only are the ideas of Tetris (or the rules of the game) not protectable, but neither re the ‘functional aspects’ of the game or expressive elements relating to the game’s function or play.” Id. at 17.  However, the Court disagreed and stated that Defendant “cannot protect expression inseparable from either game rules or game function.” Id.

In its holding, the Court noted that the Plaintiff was conflating the doctrine of merger and the related doctrine known as “scenes à faire.”  The Court explained that merger exists when an idea and the expression of that idea become inseparable. Id. at 14.  In that situation, copying is allowed to prevent a copyright holder from obtaining a monopoly over that idea.  The Court went on to discuss how expressions that are so associated with a particular idea (scenes à faire) are also unprotectable by copyright law.  Id. at 15.  In Tetris, the Court felt that neither doctrine applied.

Evaluating screenshots of both games side by side revealed just how similar the two games appeared.
The Court stated:

Without being told which is which, a common user could not decipher between the two games.  Any differences between the two are slight and insignificant.  If one has to find
distinctions only at a granular level, then the works are likely to be substantially similar.
Reviewing the videos of the game play bolsters this conclusion as it is apparent that the overall look and feel of the two games is identical. There is such similarity between the visual expression of Tetris and Mino that it is akin to literal copying.

Id. at 26-27.

Ultimately, the Court granted summary judgment for Tetris Holding, LLC, as to the copyright infringement and trade dress infringement claims.   

Is a Face Tattoo Displayed on a Character in a Film Protected Under the Copyright Law?

The Eastern District of Missouri recently denied a tattoo artist’s request for a preliminary injunction against Warner Brothers’ release of the Hangover IIWhitmill v. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 11-cv-00752 (E.D. Mo. April 28, 2011).

In that case, artist S. Victor Whitmill (“Victor”), creator of Mike Tyson’s face tattoo, filed a lawsuit against Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. (“Warner Brothers”) for not seeking his approval to use the tattoo design on the face of another character in the movie.  Victor had obtained a release from Mike Tyson after creating the tattoo and neither Tyson nor Warner Brothers sought his approval.  The movie used the tattoo design on another character’s face in a majority of the scenes.

In ruling, the judge examined four factors:

1) plaintiff’s likelihood of success on the merits;

2) whether plaintiff was threatened with irreparable harm;

3) the balance of the equities; and

4) the public interest.

The Judge felt that Victor had a strong likelihood of prevailing and that he had suffered irreparable harm because he lost control over the tattoo image.  However, the balance of equities and public interest favored Warner Brothers.  The judge found that Warner Brother’s harm outweighed Victor’s because Warner Brothers would lose millions if the movie was enjoined as compared to Victor’s loss of one tattoo design that would not affect his entire business.  Further, the public’s desire to see the movie was considered and it was determined that non-parties such as theater owners and distributors would also lose money and be affected. Ultimately, all the factors considered as a whole were tipped in favor of Warner Brothers although the Judge reasoned that Victor would probably win the case.

Early this year, the case was settled.  The terms of the settlement were kept confidential, but Warner Brothers did mention that it will not have to digitally alter the film for the DVD release, as was previously considered.


© 2012 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

What Are The Repercussions For Sites That Facilitate Internet Music Piracy?

Would a person walk out of a store and take a CD without having paid for it?  If so, we might not only conclude that they are a shoplifter, but also someone who has committed theft of copyrighted intellectual property.  Many individuals commit the equivalent of the latter kind of theft by the illegal download of a digital file of a recorded song. File sharing software makers such as LimeWire, Napster and Kazaa have made it easy for users to easily commit this offense by a click of a mouse.  However, beware; there are consequences for sites that enable this sort of conduct.

In 2006, The Recording Industry Association of America (“RIAA” or the “association”) filed a lawsuit on behalf of its member music labels against LimeWire, claiming that the music industry had lost a lot of money because LimeWire’s P2P software enabled users to share and make use of 11,000 copyrighted songs without paying a fee. The case was heard by the United States District Court, Southern District of New York. In 2010, the court ruled in favor of RIAA issuing a Permanent Injunction. RIAA, et al. v. Lime Wire, LLC, et al, 06 Civ. 05936 (Oct. 26 2010).  In evaluating whether an injunction was warranted the Court balanced four (4) elements:

1) irreparable injury;

2) whether or not there is an adequate remedy at law;

3) consideration of the balance of  hardships between the parties; and

4) whether the public interest would be disserved by the injunction

Id. at 5.

The Court concluded that RIAA faced irreparable harm because “it is virtually certain that [RIAA] will be entitled to an enormous damage award [] that will far exceed Lime Wire’s ability to pay.” Id. at 6.  Under the Copyright Act, a plaintiff is entitled to statutory damages from $750-$150,000, depending upon the circumstances of the infringement. Id. at 6; See 17 U.S.C. § 504(a)(2)-(c).

The Court found that a permanent injunction in addition to damages was necessary since the compensation for damages would only satisfy past infringement, not future infringement. Id. at 8.  The Court found that LimeWire’s widespread dissemination of its software left RIAA vulnerable to ongoing infringement by users and that this far outweighed any hardship to LimeWire by the injunction. Id. at 8.

Although the Court agreed that LimeWire induced copyright infringement, it did not agree with RIAA’s position on damages.  RIAA believed that it was owed the statutory allotment ($750-$150,000) per download, per song. Id. at 6-7.  That would have amounted to a penalty well beyond LimeWire’s resources. Id. at 6.  Ultimately, in May 2011, LimeWire made its settlement offer, and the case settled for $105 million in damages.

Businesses should take heed to the permanent injunction issued against LimeWire and the subsequent settlement amount of the lawsuit.  The issue of music piracy is serious and the music industry is being all the more active in fighting against copyright infringement.


© 2012 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

When is a Breach of Contract Claim in NY Preempted by the Copyright Act?

What state law claims are preempted by the federal law embodied in the Copyright Act?  This question was recently addressed in Stadt v. Fox News Network LLC, 719 F.Supp.2d 312 (S.D.N.Y. 2010).

In that case, Kenneth Stadt (“Stadt”), a video owner, filed a lawsuit against Fox News Network (“Fox”), a cable television network, for among other things, copyright infringement and breach of contract.  Stadt was the exclusive owner of a video that he registered with the United States Copyright Office that depicts a famous couple on vacation (“Video”).  Stadt and Fox entered into a written License Agreement (“Agreement”) in which Fox was given the sole right to air the Video on its network within a one month period.  See Id. at 316.

Stadt alleged that Fox promised to stop using the Video upon expiration of the License, and in exchange for that promise Stadt allowed Fox to broadcast the Video with a “Fox Business Exclusive” credit on the screen. However, Stadt claimed that Fox continued to make use of the Video and credit after the Agreement expired.  Fox moved to dismiss all the claims except the copyright claim, stating that “the claims are preempted by section 301 of Title 17 of the United States Code (the Copyright Act), fail to state a claim as a matter of law, or both.” Id. at 315.

The Court relied on Briarpatch Ltd. v. Phoenix Pictures, Inc., 373 F.3d 296 (2d Cir. 2004) to determine when the Copyright Act shall preempt state law. Id. at 317.  In Briarpatch, the Second Circuit held that the Copyright Act exclusively governs a claim when:

(1) the particular work to which the claim is being applied falls within the type of works protected by the Copyright Act . . .; and

(2) the claim seeks to vindicate legal or equitable rights that are equivalent to one of the bundle of exclusive rights already protected by copyright law….

See Briarpatch Ltd. v. Phoenix Pictures, Inc., 373 F.3d 296 (2d Cir. 2004).

The Briarpatch Court further stated that the first prong of this test is called the “subject matter requirement,” and the second prong is called the “general scope requirement.”  The general scope requirement is satisfied only when the state-created right may be abridged by an act that would, by itself, infringe one of the exclusive rights provided by federal copyright law.  The state law claim must not include any extra elements that make it qualitatively different from a copyright infringement claim.  Additionally, the Briarpatch Court explained that to determine whether a claim is qualitatively different, it will look at “what [the] plaintiff seeks to protect, the theories in which the matter is thought to be protected and the rights sought to be enforced.” Stadt, 719 F.Supp.2d at 317-18 (citing Briarpatch Ltd. v. Phoenix Pictures, Inc., 373 F.3d 296 (2d Cir. 2004)).

The Stadt Court stated that it takes a ‘restrictive view’ of what qualifies as an extra element sufficient to shield the claim from copyright preemption.  Nevertheless, ‘a state law claim is qualitatively different if it requires such elements as breach of fiduciary duty, or possession and control of chattels.” Stadt, 719 F.Supp.2d at 318.

To establish breach of contract in New York, a plaintiff must 1) confirm the existence of an agreement; 2) show that plaintiff has adequately performed pursuant to that contract; 3) show that the accused has breached the contract; and 4) show that there are damages.  See Id. 

The Stadt Court found that the “subject matter” requirement for federal preemption to apply was met because the subject matter of Stadt’s breach of contract claim related to the continued use of a video that was governed by the Copyright Act.  However, the “general scope” requirement was not satisfied because Stadt’s claim that Fox continued to make use of the credit following expiration of the Agreement added an “extra element that render[ed Stadt’s] breach of contract claim qualitatively different from a claim for copyright infringement.” Hence, that additional aspect of the claim was not governed by the Copyright Act.  Id. at 320-21.  In other words, the additional allegation of continued use of the credit went beyond what the Copyright Act governs and therefore survives preemption.  See Id. at 321.  Ultimately, the Stadt Court denied Fox’s motion to dismiss the breach of contract claim since only part of the claim was preempted by the Copyright Act.  See Id. at 324.

The preemption of state laws by the Copyright Act is an issue every claimant should be aware of when preparing causes of actions for a complaint involving intellectual property matters.  One should take heed of the two-step prong courts rely on in evaluating when claims meet the criteria for preemption.


© 2012 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

How Much Copyright Protection Is Granted To A Twitpic?

Does copyright protection extend to original pictures that users post on their Twitter account? That question was considered by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York last year. Agence France Presse v. Morel, 2011 WL 147718 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 14, 2011).

The defendant, Daniel Morel (“Morel”), was a photojournalist working in Haiti when an earthquake devastated the city in January 2010. After photographing the aftermath, he opened his Twitter account as well as Twitpic, a third-party application of Twitter. He uploaded his earthquake photos to Twitpic and then posted a message on Twitter that advertised that he had “exclusive earthquake photos,” while also providing a link on Twitter to his Twitpic page. There were no copyright notices on the images themselves, but his Twitpic page included the attributions “Morel” and “by photomorel.”

Minutes after the photos were posted, Dominican Republic resident Lisandro Suero (“Suero”) copied the photos, posted them on his Twitpic account and then “tweeted” that he had the “exclusive photographs of the catastrophe for credit and copyright.” Morel at 2. He did not give attribution to Morel. Eventually, the plaintiff, Agence France Press (“AFP”) and many other international news agencies began to acquire photos of the devastation. AFP emailed Morel asking if he had pictures the agency could use, but before he responded, AFP downloaded 13 of Morel’s earthquake photos from Suero’s Twitpic page. AFP placed the photos in its image forum, where they were transmitted to Getty (Getty holds exclusive rights to market AFP images in North America). AFP then included a credit line of “AFP/Getty/Lisandro Suero.” Getty subsequently licensed the photos to other news outlets, including CBS and CNN.

In December 2010, AFP brought a declaratory judgment action that alleged that it had an express license to use Morel’s photos and thus did not infringe on his copyright. In a counterclaim, Morel alleged that AFP had in fact infringed on his copyright. AFP made a motion to dismiss Morel’s counterclaim, but the Court denied it.

To prevail on a claim of copyright infringement, a plaintiff must demonstrate both:

1)      ownership of a valid copyright, and

2)      infringement of the copyright by the defendant.

Yurman Design, Inc. v. PAJ, Inc., 262 F.3d 101, 108-09 (2d. Cir. 2001).

However, even where both elements of the infringement claim are met, the existence of a license is a valid defense. Tasini v. N.Y. Times Co., Inc., 206 F.3d 161, 170-71 (2d. Cir. 2000). AFP argued that the Twitter and Twitpic Terms of Service granted the news agency an express license to use Morel’s photos and thus did not infringe on his copyright. However, the Court did not accept the argument, finding that the Terms of Service “by their express language […] grant a license to use content only to Twitter and it partners. Similarly, Twitpic’s terms grant a license to use photographs only to or affiliated sites.” Morel at 6. The Court held that because AFP was not a partner or affiliate of Twitter, it had not proven that it had an express license to use the photos.

AFP also argued that it should be considered a third party beneficiary of the agreement between Morel and Twitter. However, the Court held that the contracting parties must have intended to benefit the third party in order for that party to be considered a beneficiary of the agreement. The Court did not find any evidence that the language of the agreement indicated any intention to confer a license upon third parties, even though the language might have encouraged re-use of any content that is posted. “That language is ambiguous and insufficient to establish on the pleadings that Morel ‘understood that [Twitter] had [the] intent’ to confer a license on other users.” Id.

The Morel Court declined AFP’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s counterclaim and found that the photographer could proceed with his copyright infringement claims.


© 2012 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC