Thursday, May 31, 2012

Copyright Infringement = "Theft"

Is copyright infringement “theft”? What’s your gut response? Surprisingly, the current top dog at the Motion Picture Association of America has come out against this description of infringement as theft. Umm, let me get this straight, taking something owned by someone else without their permission is not theft? So I’m imagining a conversation that goes like this: “Hey, did you just walk out of Target without paying for that? Why that’s . . . that’s . . . .” What is that called? I’m willing to bet that even Christopher Dodd would call that theft. So what’s different in the copyright context, because Dodd is not a lone wolf in making this claim. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that infringement does not "easily" equate with theft. See Dowling v. United States (1985), 473 U.S. 207, 217–218). This is also the position taken by a noted IP scholar, David Llewelyn (a professor at King’s College London and Head of Intellectual Property at White & Case in its London office), who stated at the IP Law Asia Summit that infringing another's intellectual property not be referred to as theft because it does not physically deprive the “author” of his/her physical work. Now, most people would agree that copyright infringement is unlawful (I’m not talking about instances of fair use, implied or express license, public domain, or protection under the DMCA, etc.), but many have taken issue with calling it theft or piracy, believing that it’s important to be more precise in our language. I, for one, find that referring to copyright infringement as “theft” to be pretty precise. And I think the distinction regarding physical possession misses the point. Let’s start with a standard definition for “theft.” According to, theft (n.) means “1. The act or an instance of stealing; larceny.” To steal (, according to the same website, means “1. To take (the property of another) without right or permission.” Property (n.) means “1. a. Something owned; a possession.” Intellectual property (n.), just to close the loop, is defined as “an intangible asset, such as a copyright or patent.” So, just applying these definitions: a copyright is a form of intellectual property; property is something owned (a possession); taking property of another with permission is called stealing; and “stealing” is by definition theft. Under this tautology, copyright infringement equates to theft irrespective of whether the infringer obtained physical possession. Even if the infringer never obtains physical possession of the "tangible works of authorship" that fall within the scope of the Copyright Act (see 17 U.S.C. §§ 101, 102)), he/she still obtains “possession” rights granted to author under Section 106: the right to reproduce, distribute copies, publicly perform. And what about the right to profit from one’s creation? The infringer misappropriates royalties the author could have received but for the infringement. Isn’t that a physical deprivation? The fact that the infringer does not take physical possession of the work itself should not matter with respect to defining infringement as “theft.” Indeed, taking physical possession of the work would be separately actionable under California law as separate theft – or civilly, as conversion. A claim for conversion requires that a plaintiff establish: (1) the plaintiffs ownership or right to possession of certain property; (2) the defendant's conversion of the property by a wrongful act or disposition of property rights; and (3) damages. Oakdale Village Group v. Fong, 43 Cal.App.4th 539, 543-44, 50 Cal.Rptr.2d 810 (1996). And interestingly, a claim for conversion is generally immune from preemption under the Copyright Act specifically because it involves tangible property except where they seek damages for reproduction of the property — not return of tangible property itself. See Firoozye v. Earthlink Network, 153 F.Supp.2d 1115, 1130 (N.D.Cal.2001). Where the plaintiff does not seek the return of property, but damages for its use, the rights asserted in the conversion claim are the same as those protected by the Copyright Act, and as such the conversion claim is preempted. Id.; see also Marketing Information Masters, Inc. v. Board of Trustees of the California State University System, 552 F. Supp. 2d 1088 (S.D. Cal. 2008). Finally, the Copyright Act itself – albeit obliquely – lends some support to the position that infringement amounts to a “theft.” All of us learn from an early age that stealing can land you in the pokey. Law enforcement is very concerned with the prevention of theft and punishing thieves. Agreed? So I find it interesting that the Copyright Act likewise has a criminal infringement component. 17 U.S.C. Section 506 states, in relevant part, that “Any person who willfully infringes a copyright shall be punished [criminally] as provided under section 2319 of title 18, if the infringement was committed — (A) for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain; (B) by the reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of 1 or more copies or phonorecords of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $1,000; or (C) by the distribution of a work being prepared for commercial distribution, by making it available on a computer network accessible to members of the public, if such person knew or should have known that the work was intended for commercial distribution.” While I understand that infringement does not typically amount to “theft” in the sense that the copyright owner is deprived of his/her physical work, physical deprivation is not required to meet the dictionary definition of “theft.” The fact that the copyright owner is deprived of his/her ability to receive compensation for the work, deprived of his/her right to control the distribution of the work, deprived of his/her ability to control the republishing and public performance of the work are all instances of stealing a valuable property right, and I see nothing wrong will calling that what it is: a theft. Is this the best word to convey the act of infringement? It isn’t bad, and I’ve yet to hear better. Jonathan Pink is an intellectual property attorney at Bryan Cave, LLP, resident in Los Angeles and Orange County. Mr. Pink heads the firm’s Internet and New Media Team, and can be reached at

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Academic Fair Use Found in Georgia State University Copyright Suit

A big ruling for copyright fair use. This one, in an academic setting, springs from events that took place at Georgia State University (GSU). In a move not uncommon at universities, GSU permitted students to share digital copies of academic texts the school "housed" in its electronic library system. Based on this, several publishers, including heavy hitters Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press Inc. sued the school for copyright infringement. The suit alleged that the school and it's top brass (or top mortar boards as the case may be) had a policy of "digitally distributing course reading materials" in violation of the Copyright Act. The complaint asserted that "Georgia State provides its students (and until recently, the general public) the ability to view, download, and print without authorization a number and range of copyrighted works that vastly exceeds the amount and type of copying that might credibly be justified as fair use." As a reminder, 17 U.S.C. § 107 provides that the “fair use” of a copyrighted work “is not an infringement of copyright,” but making the determination as to whether “fair use” applies is a case-by-case analysis. Generally speaking, in determining whether the fair use defense applies, courts consider “(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” 17 U.S.C. § 107. The complaint against GSU alleged hundreds of instances of infringement. By the time of trial that was whittled down to 74. How does this happen? What happened to the remainder of the claims? How do hundreds of claims simply disappear? Uhh, duty to investigate prior to pleading? The Rule 11 certification represents that counsel has done a prefiling examination of the facts that is reasonable under the circumstances. Zaldivar v. City of Los Angeles, 780 F.2d 823, 831 (9th Cir. 1986). “Reasonable inquiry” requires attorneys to seek credible information rather than proceed on mere suspicions. California Architectural Building Products, Inc. v. Franciscan Ceramics, Inc., 818 F.2d 1466, 1472 (9th Cir. 1987). The test is “whether a reasonable inquiry would have revealed there was no basis in law or fact for the asserted claim.” (internal quotes omitted). Ali v. Mid-Atlantic Settlement Services, Inc., 233 F.R.D. 32, 39 (D. D.C. 2006).) In any event, U.S. District Judge Orinda D. Evans ruled that 69 of the 74 remaining claims of infringement were protected by the fair use doctrine, a decision that may signal an isoquantic shift in the treatment of claims founded on digital sharing. In a nutshell, Judge Evans said that GSU's sharing qualified for protection under the fair use doctrine's limited allowance of protected works for academic purposes. He ruled that, as to the those works, GSU had made just a small percentage of them available online and had done so without any intention of financial profit. Further, the court found that, by adopting an electronic sharing policy in 2009, GSU "tried to comply with the Copyright Act" and conceded that "The truth is that fair use principles are notoriously difficult to apply." As to the remaining five claims of infringement, the court held that GSU was not entitled to the fair use defense given that it had provided free electronic access to chapters of textbooks for which the publishers had actually established a licensing program to sell access them on a chapter-by-chapter basis. In other words, the school took a substantial amount of the work (the entire chapter of the chapter that was offered for sale), and that taking substantially effected the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. See 17 U.S.C. § 107. So what gets me is why GSU didn't argue that it was immune from a claim for copyright infringement. The United States District Court for the Southern District of California ruled in February 2008 that the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (“CRCA”) “is not a valid exercise of Congress’s power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment”, thereby holding that a State, employee of a State (acting within his or her official capacity) or instrumentality of a State cannot be held liable for copyright infringement. See Marketing Information Masters, Inc. v. The Board of Trustees of the California State University System, et. al. 552 F. Supp. 2d 1088 (S.D. Cal. 2008). Congress passed the CRCA, which expressly provided that “[a]ny State, instrumentality of a state… or employee of a State or instrumentality of a State… shall not be immune, under the Eleventh Amendment” to a suit for copyright infringement. 17 U.S.C. Section 511(a). However, the court in Marketing Information Masters held that the CRCA “was not passed pursuant to a valid exercise of [Congress's] Fourteenth Amendment enforcement powers,” and that “the CRCA does not constitute a valid abrogation of state sovereign immunity.” In reaching this ruling, the Court noted that the “Eleventh Amendment provides a state immunity from suit unless the state consents to be sued or Congress validly overrides the state’s immunity.” (Citing Green v. Mansour, 474 U.S. 64, 68 (1985)). To determine if Congress validly overrode a state’s immunity, the Court said that it “looks to two factors: (1) whether Congress expressed a clear intent to override the state’s immunity and (2) whether Congress acted pursuant to a congressional grant of authority.” (Citing Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 55 (1996)). Moreover, to determine whether an act constitutes a valid exercise of Congress’s power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court said that it must find that Congress identified “‘conduct transgressing the Fourteenth Amendment’s substantive provision, and… tailor[ed] its legislative scheme to remedying or preventing such conduct.’” (Citing City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997), and quoting Florida Prepaid v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627 (1999)). While neither the Supreme Court, nor the Ninth Circuit has addressed the issue of whether the CRCA is a valid abrogation of state sovereign immunity, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional two similar "remedy clarification" acts involving intellectual property rights. See Seminole Tribe, supra (invalidating the Patent and Plant Remedy Clarification Act) and College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Fund, 527 U.S. 666 (1999) (invalidating the Trademark Clarification Act). The bottom line is that, just as the Marketing Court held that the CRCA did not survive constitutional scrutiny under the enforcement clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, so too might the court in Cambridge University Press et al. v. Mark P. Becker et al. (case number 1:08-cv-01425) have reached this decision had the defendants asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to similarly find that a state university is entitled to immunity in copyright infringement claims brought against a State or State-actor when the latter is acting in his or her official capacity. Jonathan Pink heads the Internet and New Media Team at Bryan Cave, LLP. His practice focuses on intellectual property litigation including copyright, trademark and right of publicity issues. He is resident in Los Angeles and Irvine and can be reached at

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

It Takes a Village People to Reclaim a Song

The first shot is a direct hit. And possibly to the heart. Victor Willis, one of the original Village People, prevailed this week in copyright case brought under Section 203 of the Copyright Act. (Scorpio Music SA et al. v. Willis, case number 3:11-cv-01557.) That’s the section that – where certain stringent conditions are met – the grantor of a copyright may reclaim ownership of it “at any time during a period of five years beginning at the end of thirty-five years from the date of execution of the grant; or, if the grant covers the right of publication of the work, the period begins at the end of thirty-five years from the date of publication of the work under the grant or at the end of forty years from the date of execution of the grant, whichever term ends earlier.” 17 U.S.C. Section 203(a)(3). Distilled to its essence, Section 203 allows “authors” (and in this case a musician) – after jumping through rigorous hoops that are easy to miss – to regain control over their work beginning in 2013 (as measured by 35 years from the date this section of the 1976 Copyright Act went into effect). While this case was brought against a couple of music publishers, this is precisely the result that many record labels have feared: that a musician could recover the copyright interest in his / her / their hit songs. In this instance, that means the Willis’ rights to "YMCA,” "In the Navy" and 31 other songs by the Village People go back to him. Yikes. Not because of what this means to the labels, but what it means to me! Now these songs will be in my head all day! Ugggg. I blame U.S. District Judge Barry T. Moskowitz for this. Like Glenn Close in the famous bathtub scene – these bloody songs just won’t die! And of course, an appeal is certain. So don’t pop the champagne just yet, Mr. Willis. For its part, the opposing parties argued that because Willis was only one of the authors on the works could not regain his copyright interest without the involvement of his former band mates. Judge Moskowitz disagreed (“. . .in the Navy!”). He said Section 203 was drafted with the intent of letting each author regain control of his/her share of the rights (“. . . down at the Y-M-C-A”), and that in this instance, Willis had granted his copyright interest separately from the other band members, thus allowing him to “unilaterally terminate his grants" even if they haven’t. This fight is a long way from over. Both with respect to Willis and, more importantly, the bigger fight between the labels and artists seeking to push the “35 year rule” that is due to arrive any minute now. Labels have pretty well indicated that they will take the position that the works were “works for hire” under Section 201(b) of the Act. Uhhh . . . (“. . .in the Navy!”). Really? You know, Prometheus would have had it easier if the gods had told him to push that boulder down hill. . . . At the YMCA.. This was the publisher’s initial response too, but it dropped it when Willis produced evidence that the songs had not been registered as such back in days of disco. So, as we wait for the next (white) shoe to drop, we’ll just have to rip off our shirts, put on a leather vest, some chains and sing . . . In the Navy!! Jonathan Pink is an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles and Orange County California. He can be reached at

Friday, May 4, 2012

Piece of Pie

Here’s an interesting situation: song writer creates song based on a musical transcription of pi, and is then sued by another musician who had previously done the same thing. As you will recall, pi begins with 3.14159, but then goes on forever (interestingly, with no discernable pattern). As this story goes, one artist, Michael Blake, released his song through a YouTube video in 2011, only to be met later that same day by the claim from another artist, jazz musician Lars Erickson, that Blake’s work infringed Erickson’s own pi symphony. Copyright infringement, over pi? Really? Folks, just to clear up any confusion, pi is not copyrightable. To begin with, it is not itself original to either Blake or Erickson, and thus fails the initial test of copyrightability. See 17 U.S.C. Section 102 (“Copyright protection subsists . . . in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”); Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc., 499 U.S. 340, 345 (1991) (“Original, as the term is use din copyright, means only that the work was independently created by the author as opposed to copied from other works, and that it possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity.”) It is a concept that mathematicians such as Archimedes, Leonhard Euler, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Isaac Newton, Ramanujan, and John von Neumann have been grappling with for thousands of years. Further, it is simply a fact, commonly defined as the ratio of a circle's circumference C to its diameter d. And copyright protection extends only to an author’s expression of facts, not to the facts themselves. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enters., 471 U.S. 539, 556 (1985) (“No author may copyright . . . the facts he narrates.”). From a policy standpoint, scientific facts has long been viewed as building blocks that are available to subsequent creators/authors/scientists. Simply put, no one owns pi. But what about the music that is derived from a transcription of pi? Certainly that is fixed in a tangible medium, but does it possess at least some minimal degree of creativity? Without more, probably not. In this case, while Erickson obtained a registration in his work, that registration could only cover the protectable elements of that work, not material that inherently nonprotectable, such as pi. See Mattel, Inc. v. MGA Entertainment, Inc., 616 F.3d 904, 913 (9th Cir. 2010) (“At the initial ‘extrinsic’ stage, we examine the similarities between the copyrighted and challenged works and then determine whether the similar elements are protectable or unprotectable.”). This step must be performed because “a finding of substantial similarity between two works can't be based on similarities in unprotectable elements.” Id. at 917; Data East USA, Inc. v. Epyx, Inc., 862 F.2d 204, 209 (9th Cir. 1988) (clear error when district court determined substantial similarity existed based on unprotected elements). It has often been said that music typically contains a “large array of elements, some combination of which is protectable by copyright.” Swirsky v. Carey, 376 F.3d 841, 849 (9th Cir. 2004). Therefore, when analyzing the similarity of musical compositions, the court must consider a variety of compositional elements including melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, structure, instrumentation, meter, tempo, and lyrics. Id. However, any finding of infringement may not be based on constituent elements/material that unoriginal, and thus do not merit protection. See, Shaw v. Lindheim, 919 F.2d 1353, 1363 (1990) (rejecting plaintiff’s “26 strikingly similar events” purportedly shared by his and the challenged work in part because defendants rejoined with a “list of similarities between ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Star Wars’ that [was] virtually as compelling as [plaintiff’s].”). This is apparently the result reached by the court in this case. While Erickson and Blake both assigned musical notes to correspond with the 3.14, etc. digits of pi, the court found that the works differed sufficiently in tempo, musical phrasing, and harmonies. As to the fact that both works were founded on pi, the court ruled that similarity was not protectable, and thus that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate a substantial similarity of protectable expression between the works. This case should serve as a reminder that not every similarity between two works constitutes an actionable claim for infringement, or justifies the cost of litigation. Jonathan Pink is an intellectual property attorney specializing in copyright and trademark issues. He is resident in the Los Angeles and Orange County, and heads the Internet and New Media team at Bryan Cave, LLP. He can be reached at