When the Jacket Fits but the Copyright Registration (Maybe) Doesn’t: Ninth Circuit Clarifies Requirement to Determine Validity of Knowingly Filed Incorrect Copyright Registration

Written by Aaron D. Johnston and Orly Ravid SUMMARY The Ninth Circuit recently decided a copyright infringement case that pitted fabric designer Unicolors against clothing retail giant H&M regarding an artwork design that H&M used on a jacket and skirt in its fall 2015 collection.  The dispute involved one fabric design in a copyright registration containing 31 designs as a “single-unit registration.”  In Unicolors, Inc. … Continue reading When the Jacket Fits but the Copyright Registration (Maybe) Doesn’t: Ninth Circuit Clarifies Requirement to Determine Validity of Knowingly Filed Incorrect Copyright Registration

Fair Use & Tater Tots

Written by Timothy M. Carter In 2011, Plaintiffs Tamita Brown, Glen S. Chapman, and Jason T. Chapman composed and recorded the children’s song Fish Sticks n’ Tater Tots (the “Song”), which details a student’s journey from her classroom to her school cafeteria to eat fish sticks and tater tots for lunch.[1]  Six years later, the documentary film Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe (the “Film”) — which … Continue reading Fair Use & Tater Tots

Manufacturer Strikes Out on Three IP Theories Asserted to Enforce Its Claimed Rights in Product Design

Written by Mark C. Humphrey

On May 14, 2020, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in Lanard Toys Limited v. Dolgencorp LLC et al., Case No. 2019-178, affirming summary judgment for the defendants and dismissing claims for design patent and copyright infringement.  The claims were grounded in a challenging intellectual property law concept: the level of protection available for objects claimed to have both aesthetic and utilitarian functions.  While the decision does little to provide additional clarity on the issue, it offers a useful snapshot of current jurisprudence, particularly in the copyright context in light of the United States Supreme Court’s Star Athletica decision, and identifies the salient distinctions between copyright law, design patent law, and trade dress law as they apply to a product design.

Lanard involves toy chalk holders made to look and function like pencils.  Since 2011, Lanard had been making and selling one such product, the “Lanard Chalk Pencil,” to national distributors including Dolgencorp LLC (parent of Dollar General) and Toys R’ Us (“TRU”).  Lanard owned patent registrations for its design, as well as a copyright for a work entitled “Pencil/Chalk Holder.”  In 2012, Ja-Ru, Inc. (“Ja-Ru”) released a similar toy chalk pencil holder that used the Lanard Chalk Pencil as a design reference.  By 2013, Dolgencorp and TRU had stopped ordering the Lanard Chalk Pencil in favor of Ja-Ru’s product. Continue reading “Manufacturer Strikes Out on Three IP Theories Asserted to Enforce Its Claimed Rights in Product Design”

Attorney Fees Are Recoverable in Declaratory Relief Action for Copyright Abandonment, Ninth Circuit Holds

Written by Tiana A. Bey

On May 13, 2020, the Ninth Circuit opened the door for courts to award attorney’s fees to parties seeking or defending against equitable relief actions that may implicate the Copyright Act.  In Doc’s Dream v. Dolores Press, Inc., No. 18-56073 (9th Cir. May 13, 2020), the Circuit held broadly that “any action that turns on the existence of a valid copyright and whether that copyright has been infringed” is properly within the scope of attorney’s fees recoverable pursuant to the fee-shifting provision of the Copyright Act.  And it applied that holding to the particular claim for declaratory relief before it, namely whether a party had abandoned a copyright.

Section 505 of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 505, provides a court with discretion to “award a reasonable attorney’s fee to the prevailing party” as a part of the recoverable cost incurred “in any civil action under” the Copyright Act.  Doc’s Dream presented a “first impression” issue: whether a declaratory relief claim concerning the judicially-created “copyright abandonment” doctrine qualifies as an action under the Copyright Act.  To address this question, the Circuit had to decide whether a determination of copyright abandonment required a “construction” of the Copyright Act, and it answered in the affirmative. Continue reading “Attorney Fees Are Recoverable in Declaratory Relief Action for Copyright Abandonment, Ninth Circuit Holds”

High Court Copyright Ruling Expands Government Edicts Doctrine

Written by Eleanor M. Lackman and Craig C. Bradley

On April 27, the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time in 130 years addressed the government edicts doctrine, a court-made rule holding that state government edicts having the force of law are not eligible for copyright protection.  

The doctrine provides that state and local government officials acting in their governmental capacity are not considered “authors” as that term is understood in copyright law.  Without authorship, no copyright protection is available for the work.  This principle has made judicial opinions and statutes freely available to publish and review free from claims of copyright infringement.

The decision in Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org, Inc., raised a new issue: not whether the law itself was copyrightable, but whether annotations and other analytical materials accompanying the law were also barred from copyright protection under the government edicts doctrine. Continue reading “High Court Copyright Ruling Expands Government Edicts Doctrine”

Court Holds Vicarious Copyright Liability Claim Can Move Forward Against Major ISP

Written by Marc E. Mayer, Leo M. Lichtman, and Orly Ravid

Last week, the music industry enjoyed a high profile victory in its efforts to combat music piracy allegedly facilitated by Internet service providers (ISPs), including cable and telecommunications companies that provide Internet access to members of the public.  In Warner Records Inc. et al. v. Charter Comm’ns, Inc., No. 1:19-cv-00874, Judge R. Brook Jackson in the U.S. District Court of Colorado adopted a Magistrate’s Judge’s ruling from October 2019 allowing claims of vicarious copyright infringement against Charter Communications, one of this country’s largest ISPs, to proceed beyond the pleading stage.

The Charter Communications lawsuit was initiated last year by Warner Records and a group of several dozen record companies and music publishers, who collectively have produced or control the rights to millions of sound recordings and musical compositions.  In their Complaint, the plaintiffs allege that Charter is contributorily and vicariously liable for the infringement of thousands of copyrighted works that were unlawfully reproduced and distributed by its subscribers via peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing programs such as BitTorrent.  According to the Complaint, Charter has known for years that subscribers were using its network to pirate music—including particular customers that were repeatedly infringing the plaintiffs’ copyrights—by virtue of the thousands of infringement notices that were sent to Charter detailing specific instances of infringement on its network.  The plaintiffs claim that despite those notices, Charter nonetheless failed to take appropriate action to curb the infringement in order to avoid the loss of subscriber revenue. Continue reading “Court Holds Vicarious Copyright Liability Claim Can Move Forward Against Major ISP”

A De Minimis Defense Grows in Brooklyn: Display of Street Art in Action Movie Not Infringement

Written by Eleanor M. Lackman and Theresa B. Bowman 

On March 30, 2020, in Blaney, et al., v. XYZ Films, et al., the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed copyright infringement and false endorsement claims arising out of the depiction of a well-known Brooklyn mural in the dystopian, thriller motion picture Bushwick.  While the defendants undeniably filmed, and thus reproduced, the mural in the motion picture, the court held that such copying was both de minimis and fair use and therefore not copyright infringement.  In dismissing the false endorsement claims, the court determined that the defendants’ use of the mural created little risk of confusion that the murals’ creator and subject, both peace activists, endorsed the defendants’ motion picture.

The decision bolsters the ability of movie and TV production companies to depict, accurately and briefly, iconic or well-known community sites as part of background “establishing shots.”  Meanwhile, the outcome might inject some uncertainty into whether artists can pursue licensing revenue for works depicted in those films and TV shows.

Continue reading “A De Minimis Defense Grows in Brooklyn: Display of Street Art in Action Movie Not Infringement”

Copyright Office Accepting Electronic Applications

Copyright Offices Announces Temporary Changes to Deposit Copy Requirements Written by Alesha M. Dominique and Marissa B. Lewis The United States Copyright Office has announced that it will temporarily accept electronic deposit copies to facilitate remote examination of electronic applications which ordinarily must be accompanied by physical deposits during the COVID-19 pandemic.  This measure, effective as of April 2, 2020, is optional and does not … Continue reading Copyright Office Accepting Electronic Applications

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of North Carolina, Applies Sovereign Immunity

Written by Bradley J. Mullins and Adé T.W. Jackson

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a provision of the Copyright Act that allows for lawsuits against state governments for copyright infringement is unconstitutional.  The justices were considering Allen, et al. v. Cooper, et al., Case No. 18-877 (Mar. 23, 2020), a case where North Carolina was being sued by a filmmaker for using his videos and photos of the wreck of Queen Anne’s Revenge — the flagship of the pirate Blackbeard.  The justices unanimously ruled that North Carolina was shielded from the lawsuit by state sovereign immunity.

Although the Eleventh Amendment gives states broad sovereign immunity against such lawsuits, the plaintiff relied on the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (CRCA) — a statue enacted by Congress in 1990 expressly to permit infringement claims against the States.  However, Monday’s ruling invalidates the statute, with the justices determining that Congress lacked the constitutional authority required to abrogate state sovereign immunity in this way. Continue reading “Supreme Court Rules in Favor of North Carolina, Applies Sovereign Immunity”

Pirates Find New Shelter

Demand for Pirated Content Surges as the Public Stays Home

Written by Eleanor M. Lackman

At a time where theaters are shut down and productions are on hold, the entertainment industry is facing another challenge: the sudden surge in demand for pirated audiovisual and game content.  According to anti-piracy firm MUSO, the number of people illegally streaming the movie Contagion increased by over 5600%.  As lockdowns and stay-home orders keep people at home in an increasing number of countries, online searches for local pirate sites have ballooned, even despite studios’ in-home release of films that were slated to premiere this month in theaters.

Apparently taking advantage of the situation, well-known piracy app Popcorn Time, which launched in 2015 and was quickly shut down thereafter, has just reemerged in a new version.  In its own words, Popcorn Time announced in a tweet on Tuesday: “Love in the Time of Corona Version 0.4 [sic] is out!” Popcorn Time offers an easy-to-use system that uses BitTorrent to stream movies and television shows without needing to download them.  This time, the instructions for the app include a suggestion for users to use VPNs to avoid detection by users’ ISPs, which may be held responsible for repeated acts of infringement by their users if the ISP fails to take appropriate steps to curtail it.  See, e.g., BMG Rights Management (US) LLC v. Cox Communications, Inc., 881 F.3d 293 (4th Cir. 2018). Continue reading “Pirates Find New Shelter”