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Copyright Case Opinion Summaries

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Bell, a practicing attorney and professional photographer, filed a copyright infringement action against 46 defendants including Lantz, based on their website publication of Bell’s photograph of the Indianapolis skyline. Eventually, Bell confirmed that Lantz had not infringed his copyright, and voluntarily dismissed his claim with prejudice. Lantz moved, as the prevailing party, for costs and attorney’s fees under 17 U.S.C. 505, the Copyright Act. The district court considered the nonexclusive factors outlined in Supreme Court precedent and concluded that the action was frivolous, that Bell’s motivation was questionable, that the action was objectively unreasonable, and that awarding fees would advance the considerations of compensation and deterrence. The Seventh Circuit vacated and remanded for recalculation of the award, finding no support for the attorney’s hourly rate. View “Bell v. Lantz” on Justia Law

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Home Design filed suit against Turner for copyright infringement on Home Design’s architectural floor plan HDS-2089. A jury returned a verdict in favor of Home Design, awarding $127,760 in damages. Turner moved for judgment notwithstanding the jury’s verdict under Rule 50(b) and the district court granted the motion. The court held that architectural floor plans are not protected by copyright to the extent that they portray ideas, rather than expressions of ideas. The Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 10, restricts which elements of architectural floor plans are protectable through its definition of a copyrightable “architectural work.” The court concluded that Intervest Construction, Inc. v. Canterbury Estate Homes, Inc. and Zalewski v. Cicero Builder Dev., Inc. control this case. In light of the constraints imposed by a four–three split style home, the court concluded that the differences between HDS-2089 and the Turner plans demonstrate the absence of copyright infringement. The differences between HDS-2089 and the Turner plans are differences in dimensions, wall placement, and the presence, arrangement, and function of particular features around the house. Because the same sorts of differences indicated no infringement in Intervest, that result follows in this case as well. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View “Home Design Serv., Inc. v. Turner Heritage Homes Inc.” on Justia Law

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Kirtsaeng bought low-cost foreign edition textbooks in Thailand and resold them to students in the U.S. In 2013 the Supreme Court held that Kirtsaeng could invoke the Copyright Act’s “first-sale doctrine,” 17 U.S.C. 109(a), as a defense to the publisher’s copyright infringement claim. Kirtsaeng then sought more than $2 million in attorney’s fees from the publisher under the Act’s fee-shifting provision. The Second Circuit affirmed denial of Kirtsaeng’s application, reasoning that Wiley had taken reasonable positions during litigation. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. When deciding whether to award attorney’s fees under 17 U.S.C. 505, a court should give substantial weight to the objective reasonableness of the losing party’s position, while still taking into account all other relevant circumstances. Precedent has identified several non-exclusive​ factors for courts to consider, e.g., frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness, and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence. Putting substantial weight on the reasonableness of a losing party’s position is consistent with the objectives of the Copyright Act, but courts must take into account a range of considerations beyond the reasonableness of litigating positions. Because the district court “may not have understood the full scope of its discretion,” the Court remanded for consideration of other relevant factors. View “Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.” on Justia Law

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The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA), 17 U.S.C. 512(c), establishes a safe harbor which gives qualifying Internet service providers protection from liability for copyright infringement when their users upload infringing material on the service provider’s site and the service provider is unaware of the infringement. Plaintiffs filed suit against Vimeo alleging that Vimeo is liable for copyright infringement by reason of 199 videos posted on the Vimeo website, which contained allegedly infringing musical recordings for which plaintiffs owned the rights. In this interlocutory appeal on certified questions from rulings of the district court interpreting the DMCA, the court concluded that the safe harbor of section 512(c) does apply to pre-1972 sound recordings, and therefore protects service providers against liability for copyright infringement under state law with respect to pre-1972 sound recordings, as well as under the federal copyright law for post-1972 recordings. Therefore, the district court’s grant of partial summary judgment to plaintiffs with respect to Vimeo’s entitlement to the safe harbor for infringements of pre-1972 recordings is vacated. The court also concluded that various factual issues that arise in connection with a service provider’s claim of the safe harbor are subject to shifting burdens of proof. Because, on a defendant’s claim of the safe harbor, the burden of showing facts supporting a finding of red flag knowledge shifts to the plaintiff, and the district court appears to have denied Vimeo’s motion for summary judgment as to a number of videos on this issue based on a test that would improperly deny service providers access to the safe harbor, the court vacated the denial of Vimeo’s motion for summary judgment on that issue. The court remanded for reconsideration and further proceedings. Finally, the court rejected plaintiff’s argument that the district court erred in its ruling in Vimeo’s favor as to plaintiffs’ reliance on the doctrine of willful blindness. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded for further proceedings. View “Capitol Records, LLC v. Vimeo, LLC” on Justia Law

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VMG filed a copyright infringement suit against Madonna and others, alleging that the producer of the song “Vogue,” copied a 0.23-second segment of horns from an earlier song, known as “Love Break,” and used a modified version of that snippet when recording “Vogue.” The district court granted summary judgment to defendants and awarded them attorney’s fees under 17 U.S.C. 505. VMG appealed. The court agreed with the district court’s application of the longstanding legal rule that de minimus copying does not constitute infringement and that a general audience would not recognize the brief snippet in “Vogue” as originating from “Love Break.” The court rejected VMG’s argument that Congress eliminated the de minimis exception to claims alleging infringement of a sound recording. The court recognized that the Sixth Circuit held to the contrary in Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, but found Bridgeport’s reasoning unpersuasive. The court held that the de minimus exception applies to infringement actions concerning copyrighted sound recordings, as it applies to all other copyright infringement actions. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to defendants. In regard to the attorney’s fees, the court concluded that the district court abused its discretion. A claim premised on a legal theory adopted by the only circuit court to have addressed the issue is, as a matter of law, objectively reasonable. The district court’s conclusion to the contrary constitutes legal error. View “VMG Salsoul, LLC v. Ciccone” on Justia Law