Social Media

Content in Quarantine: Copyright Best Practices During a Pandemic

By Scott J. Sholder

At a time when we are stuck at home, working or “working” (or, sadly for many, not working) the tenet that content is king has never been more relevant.  From Disney+ releasing “Frozen II” and “Onward” early to help placate restless youngsters, to DreamWorks releasing “Trolls World Tour” for “theatrical” in-house rental, to Instagram sensation DJ D Nice offering his “Club Quarantine” and “Homeschool” IG parties and Spotify playlists, there is something for everyone on one platform or another.  Musicians are even offering special live-streamed performances from their homes (thank you Dave Grohl, Billy Joe Armstrong, et al.).

While the Disney and DreamWorks releases were clearly authorized corporate decisions, the world of quarantine content becomes murkier when one turns their overly scrubbed fingers to the keyboard.  Of course, the lead singers of Foo Fighters and Green Day, respectively, likely have the rights to publicly perform music they wrote, and reports indicate that DJ D Nice made licensing deals to avoid copyright claims stemming from his streaming discotheques.  But in the further corners of social media, the always-gray field of copyright has spawned more than its usual fifty shades in the time of COVID-19.  So, what about musicians performing other artists’ songs?  Fitness instructors on Instagram Live with their playlists thumping in the background?  The Internet Archive[i] offering its own “Emergency Library” of digital copies of books (a decision decried by the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers, but claimed to be fair use by archive.org)?  Or DJs who, unlike DJ D Nice, did not have permission to publicly perform or remix the music featured during that IG virtual dance party?

At least in the latter case, some DJs and performers streaming on Instagram Live have reported that they’ve had their streams cut short by copyright infringement claims over use of musical content without authorization.  Lesser-known and aspiring artists (who, like many, are out of work at this time) are having their online raves canceled mid-performance.  But at the same time, artists whose content is being used may also be out of work and may be incentivized, perhaps more than usual, to enforce their copyright rights and preserve their dwindling income streams.  This presents a sensitive nuance to an already delicate balance between online content usage and rights enforcement. 

There is no timelier example of COVID-era copyright enforcement than Richard Liebowitz, the infamous plaintiff’s lawyer behind more than 2,000 copyright infringement lawsuits filed by photographers over the last four years.  His business model – which he characterizes as fighting for photographers’ rights, and much of the digital media industry characterizes as “trolling” – has, like COVID-19, mutated to adapt to its new circumstances.  It was recently reported[ii] that, despite quarantine and widespread isolation (or perhaps because of it), Liebowitz’s filings have actually increased, with his firm filing 51 lawsuits between mid-March and early April (39% of all copyright infringement lawsuits filed since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic).[iii]  Likewise, porn studio Strike 3 Holdings is also keeping busy during the pandemic, having filed a more modest 11 new lawsuits since mid-March.[iv]  The uptick in these types of cases is potentially correlated to the increased use of content during quarantine and the reduced number of opportunities for photographers and other content creators to earn a living.  So, what’s a pandemic hermit to do?

The short answer: the same thing you’d do in pre-COVID life.  Even in these strange times of social distancing and mandatory isolation, the same rules apply even when unauthorized content use is undertaken for seemingly laudable reasons such as alleviating boredom, distracting your kids, or entertaining your Instagram followers.  For better or for worse, there is no exception in the Copyright Act for what’s going on out there, so vigilance in defense as well as enforcement is paramount.  For instance, the test for fair use set out in section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976 requires a lot more than benevolence in alleviating boredom or even supplementing one’s income during hard times to successfully fend off a claim of infringement.  One of the keys to establishing a viable fair use defense is “transformative use” – use of existing content that adds new expression, meaning, or message to the original underlying work.  Simply using the content as intended, even in an unprecedented environment, almost certainly will not be considered transformative.  As tempting as it may be to utilize others’ content for a seemingly good cause, good intentions do not a fair use make. 

Best practices for content usage remain largely unchanged.  The first-tier best solution is to use vetted licensed content (ideally pursuant to representations, warranties, and indemnification from the licensor) or seek permission, preferably in writing, directly from the copyright owner.  There are plenty of options out there for many types of content.  Licensing agencies like Getty Images, Shutterstock, Adobe, and Pond5 are stalwarts for visual content.  Many book and journal publishers are now offering resources[v] for newly minted home teachers.  Creative Commons licenses and use of public domain material are also viable options, particularly for photographic content, although may be less useful for things like popular music and are not always fool proof.  Music licensing is a unique beast that could fill an entire treatise, but suffice it to say that several licenses may be required depending on the nature of the use, including public performance licenses from performing rights organizations like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and Global Music Rights, “mechanical” licenses from music publishers and “master use” licenses from labels when content is downloadable, and synchronization licenses from publishers and record labels for music that is cued up with accompanying video content.  It’s certainly worth noting that some sites offer royalty-free and low-cost licensable music, such as Freeplay Music, Audioblocks, and Free Music Archive, without the added worry of the music licensing labyrinth.

Reliance on defenses like fair use should be a last resort, and in such cases, it is always wise to seek advice from an experienced copyright lawyer.  And, on the other side of the equation, if you believe your content is being used in a way that violates your copyright rights, platforms like YouTube and Instagram have DMCA takedown forms for removal of infringing content, but recent developments in the law require at least some consideration of whether the user has potential defenses (such as fair use) before submitting a takedown notice.

As we stay vigilant against the virus that is causing so much havoc worldwide, we must also make sure that we stay within the bounds of the law and mitigate our legal risks as we mitigate our health risks.  While troubled times such as these call for cooperation, collaboration, forgiveness, and flexibility, absent content owners and users working together to reach mutually beneficial arms-length deals, or the creation of a collective effort to allow free use of IP like that of Open COVID Pledge[vi] for health-based patents and technology, the rules remain as they were even if the world outside doesn’t.   

This article appeared in the May 1st issues of LAW360 Intellectual Property, LAW360 Media & Entertainment, and LAW360 Coronavirus.


[i] “Announcing a National Emergency Library to Provide Digitized Books to Students and the Public,” Internet Archive Blogs (Mar. 24, 2020), https://blog.archive.org/2020/03/24/announcing-a-national-emergency-library-to-provide-digitized-books-to-students-and-the-public/

[ii] Bill Donahue, “During Pandemic, Prolific Copyright Lawyer Keeps Suing,” Law360 (Mar. 27, 2020), https://www.law360.com/ip/articles/1257593/during-pandemic-prolific-copyright-lawyer-keeps-suing?nl_pk=db11a53e-b04f-44a7-96e1-76824544133d&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ip

[iii] See id.

[iv] See id.

[v] “What Publishers Are Doing to Help During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Association of American Publishers, https://publishers.org/aap-news/covid-19-response/

[vi] Open Covid Pledge (Apr. 7, 2020), https://opencovidpledge.org/

S.D.N.Y. Holds that Publishers May Embed Content Publicly Posted on Instagram Platform — (Sinclair v. Ziff Davis, LLC et al.)

By Lindsay Edelstein

Since the emergence of social media, courts, content creators, and publishers alike have been grappling with legal issues concerning the practice of “embedding” copyrighted content.  Following the controversial February 2019 decision in Goldman v. Breitbart News, LLC – rejecting the Ninth Circuit’s “server test” and holding that an embed constitutes a “public display” exposing a content user to liability under the Copyright Act – the pendulum had seemingly swung in favor of content owners, creators, and licensors. 

Yesterday, however, Judge Kimba Wood of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, issued a ruling in Sinclair v. Ziff Davis, LLC et al, providing publishers and other content users with a defense to alleged copyright infringement premised on the practice of embedding in the context of social media platforms: a valid sublicense granted to the user by Instagram via the interrelated agreements available on its platform. 

Sinclair, a professional photographer, publicly shared her copyrighted photograph “Child, Bride, Mother/Child Marriage in Guatemala” on her public Instagram page, which was viewable by anyone.  Media and entertainment platform Mashable made an offer to license the photograph from Sinclair for use in an article entitled “10 female photojournalists with their lenses on social justice.”  Sinclair rejected Mashable’s offer, but Mashable proceeded to use Instagram’s application programming interface, or “API,” to embed Sinclair’s original Instagram post in its article.  The embed frame of Sinclair’s Instagram post, as it appeared in the Mashable article, was hosted on Instagram’s servers, linked back to Sinclair’s Instagram page, and included the photograph, Sinclair’s original caption, and the date of the original post.  The Mashable article specifically discussed Sinclair and her work above the embed.  Sinclair filed suit against both Mashable and its parent company Ziff Davis, LLC for copyright infringement.

Mashable’s chief argument was that Instagram’s integrated agreements (i.e., its Platform Policy, Terms of Use, and Privacy Policy) clearly granted it a sublicense to display the photograph.  Indeed, the Terms of Use stated that, by posting content to Instagram, the user “grant[s] to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to the Content that you post on or through [Instagram], subject to [Instagram’s] Privacy Policy.”  Pursuant to Instagram’s Privacy Policy, users can revoke Instagram’s sub-licensable right by designating the content at issue as “private.”  Because Sinclair posted the photograph publicly, Judge Wood opined, “Plaintiff made her choice.  This Court cannot release her from the agreement she made.” 

While the Court conceded that Instagram’s integrated agreements could be more concise and accessible, it declined to accept Sinclair’s contention that the agreements were unenforceable because they were purportedly “circular,” “incomprehensible,” and “contradictory.”

Judge Wood also touched upon a real dilemma faced by professional photographers: deciding whether to remain in “private mode” on one of the most popular public photo sharing platforms in the world, or to promote and share work publicly.  On the one hand, sharing content publicly allows widespread exposure and can be effectively used to market and promote one’s work.  Indeed, many photographers today use Instagram as a digital portfolio, showcasing their works to the masses.  On the other hand, if sharing content publicly grants a valid sublicense to publishers of digital content, the licensing value of such content may be diminished.

This holding is likely to send shock waves throughout the creative community as rights holders may be forced to rethink how they make their works available to the public.  Alternatively, for publishers and media entities, it allows use of publicly available content provided the publisher uses the embed API that links directly back to the Instagram account user’s full Instagram page. 

As with the Goldman case, the Sinclair holding is not binding on other courts and does not create a per se rule with respect to the practice of embedding, and each case will likely depend on the specific circumstances present. In Goldman, the photographer never posted to Twitter, but rather shared his image of Tom Brady in a private Snapchat, with one friend capturing a screen grab and further distributing it on the Twitter platform.  Twitter’s terms, unlike Instagram’s, do not grant publishers a sublicense to embed using the Twitter environment.  Users of content should note that the Instagram Privacy Policy requires the user to obtain consent before using content in an ad.

Moving forward, courts will likely consider the terms of service (including the content owner’s choice of privacy settings) and the type of embedding at issue (i.e., the “framing” of standalone images as in Goldman, versus the prototypical “embedding” using Instagram’s API as in Sinclair).  Courts may also consider the context of the use at issue as well, such as whether the use of the image transformed the purpose of the original work, or whether it is merely illustrative of the article.   Before considering embedding any content, publishers should carefully review all relevant terms of service and seek legal counsel as platform policies are not uniform and there is uncertainty in the law.

CDAS’ Nancy Wolff Examines the “Anatomy of an Ad” at the Cardozo Advertising Law Symposium

Join Nancy and other legal and advertising experts as they put advertising under a microscope, taking an in-depth view of the deals, the laws, the risks and the trends in today’s “ad biz.” Register here for the March 23rd event at the Cardozo School of Law.

CDAS Partners Briana C. Hill and Benjamin Jaffe Named Co-Chairs of the Entertainment and the Digital Media & Technology groups, respectively.

Briana Hill, Co-Head of the Beverly Hills office of Cowan DeBaets Abrahams & Sheppard LLP, joins Fred Bimbler and Simon Pulman in leading the firm’s Entertainment group, which includes televison (traditional to broadband), streaming, film, new media, talent, theatre and podcasting. The group assists clients with their entertainment projects through early development, the solicitation of investment, production and ultimate distribution, securing all necessary rights and negotiating agreements with top-tier talent.

Ben Jaffe joins Joshua Sessler in leading the Digital Media & Technology group that represents top digital talent, including game developers and distributors, digital agencies, production houses, broadband video networks, mobile app developers, podcasters and social media ventures. The group provides counsel to a wide range of social media, transmedia and mobile plays that are using emerging software and hardware technologies to create, develop and distribute content in new ways.

Top Five List: Protecting Your Podcast (and You)

By Scott J. Sholder

Although podcasts have been around in one form or another since the early aughts, their ubiquity and popularity has skyrocketed in recent years.  Apple, Spotify, Pandora, Google, and Stitcher, among other platforms, have changed the game when it comes to distribution, variety, and access.  Wildly popular programs like Serial, Pod Save America, My Favorite Murder, and The Daily have set the standard for content excellence across the news and mystery genres, while The Joe Rogan Experience, Comedy Bang! Bang!, WTF with Marc Maron, and Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend are leading the way in the comedy space.

If you want your dulcet tones to break into the digital airwaves and bring your audience information or entertainment and laughs (or maybe all three), you will of course need solid distribution and top-notch content.  But you also need legal protection both for you and for your content.  While podcasting may seem straightforward enough to not warrant the involvement of a lawyer, there’s more to it than you might think.  Here are five things to do to protect yourself and your content when entering the world of podcasting.

  1. Form a Company:  You may have already done this, but setting up a company, whether a corporation, partnership, or LLC, is a smart first step in becoming a content provider.  Apart from tax implications (which your accountant can explain to you), the corporate form creates a shield around you to protect your personal assets from certain forms of liability (for instance, breach of contract), limiting legal exposure to the assets of the company where it can be said that the company is the liable party.  The corporate form may not protect you from torts such as defamation and copyright infringement if you (intentionally or not) slip up in your individual capacity, but the company can still potentially absorb the exposure for torts it is deemed to have committed.  You may also want to use a corporation or LLC to hold your intellectual property (more on IP below) or “loan out” your services as talent, which can be helpful from a financial standpoint (again, talk to your accountant).  Setting up a company can be simple enough to be a DIY project but might become more complicated, requiring professional advice, depending on the arrangement you want and if you have multiple shareholders or members.  But it’s generally not that expensive and could save you headaches in the long run.  Once you’ve formed your company, make sure that you assign any existing contracts to the company (an attorney can help you with this as well), and that future contracts are in the name of the company – not your own name.

  2. Obtain Copyright and Trademark Protection:  To protect your original content, you should apply to register copyrights in that content.  While ideas and concepts are not copyrightable, the tangible expression of those ideas is, including scripts, sound recordings, skits or sketches, songs, and even, in some instances, individual jokes.  If the content is original to you (i.e., not simply copied from someone else) and is in a “fixed” medium of expression, you can apply to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office.  The application process is more straightforward than the trademark process (discussed below) and the basic fees are reasonable; the bar to obtaining a registration is also pretty low in that “originality” for copyright purposes requires only minimal creativity, and it is far less likely that another copyright owner will challenge your application.  While it may seem onerous to register each episode of a podcast – especially if you release episodes more than once a week – there are ways to potentially streamline the process and keep costs down, and copyright counsel can be helpful in this regard.  Registering copyrights will also help you if your podcast one day moves into other media, such as television or a published book.

    Have a clever name for your podcast?  You should consider applying for a trademark registration.  If you offer goods or services (including entertainment services like podcasts) using a name, logo, or short phrase as a source indicator, you may be eligible for federal trademark protection through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  Simply using the word, phrase, or logo “in commerce” is enough to give you some rights to enforce against infringers, but registration gives you more rights and enhanced damages if someone tries to rip off your mark.  It’s important to note, though, that there are filing fees and other expenses involved in applying to register a trademark (and in maintaining a trademark once it is registered), and during the application process other trademark owners have a chance to challenge your mark if they think it is too similar to theirs.  The application process is also more complex than applying to register a copyright and it is usually advisable to seek legal counsel to help ensure your mark is not “blocked” or otherwise rejected. 

  3. Obtain Necessary Licenses, Releases, and Permissions:  If you are using third-party content (playing audio clips or music, reading from a script or a book, etc.), you should make sure you have permission to do so from the owner of the copyright.  Despite popular misconceptions, there is no magic percentage that you can use without consequence (e.g., 8 measures of a song, 30 seconds of a comedy bit, 5% of a book) and the question of whether something is “fair use” is complex, gray, and extremely fact sensitive.  The best practice is to make sure you have a license (whether written or oral) to use content that is not exclusively yours or seek out content from royalty-free libraries or that can be used under Creative Commons licenses.  And when that content includes the voice or other identifying aspect of a third party, you’ll need to get that person’s permission as well, separate from the necessary copyright permissions.  A person’s voice is part of their “right of publicity” which is distinct from copyright and generally (with some exceptions) requires permission to use.

    If you have guests appear on your podcast, make sure they sign an appearance release that allows you to use their names and likenesses (e.g., voices) including for commercial, advertising, and promotional purposes and that releases you from liability for the ways in which guests’ names and likenesses are used.  While the best practice is to get written permission, you can also secure this consent verbally by having the guest read a brief script on air.  There are special considerations when dealing with minors that are beyond the scope of this article, and in such situations, it is best to consult a lawyer familiar with minor talent. 

  4. Vet Your Content and Read Your Contracts:  Related to number 3, if you are using third-party content (assuming you have permission), you should make sure that content doesn’t infringe anyone else’s rights.  Issues in the podcasting space, especially in comedy, usually arise in the context of defamation.  For example, if you source a clip of another comedian’s latest standup special and that comedian makes a defamatory statement about another identifiable person, you may be liable for re-publishing that defamatory statement.  The best practice is to review content before using it and consult a lawyer if you have concerns about any piece of content. 

    Also, if you sign any contracts, whether to acquire or license content, or for a third party to distribute or host your own content, read them before you sign them.  If you sign a contract you normally are bound even if you haven’t read it, so always understand what you are signing before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  When licensing third-party content, make sure you’re indemnified in case the person who provided you with the content didn’t have sufficient permission to do so, and when reviewing terms set out by hosting platforms, know who controls your RSS feed; typically, the host will control it for the period they host it, but unless your content is exclusive to one platform (for instance, Spotify), the platform should not own the stream or the content.  And note that in many jurisdictions, an email agreement is considered a binding contract – so be careful what you agree to via email.  Usually the best time to engage an attorney is when an offer is initially made to you – even if it takes the form of an email as opposed to a formal contract.  There are obviously more issues that may arise than just these, so don’t sign away your rights unknowingly!

  5. Get Errors and Omissions Insurance:  Many insurance companies offer E&O insurance for media and entertainment companies (such as AXIS Capital, AXA XL, QBE, and OneBeacon) and getting coverage is a smart idea particularly given how much litigation arises out of media and entertainment properties.  Media insurance policies often cover copyright and trademark claims, contract claims, defamation claims, and other risks that commonly arise in the media and entertainment space.  While this may seem like an unnecessary cost, especially for an individual or small business, those who make their living in media and entertainment should seriously consider it – and as the podcast business becomes more mature and sophisticated, insurance is increasingly being required in connection with certain forms of distribution.

#TRADEMARKS: Registration of Hashtag Marks

The #hashtag, once confined to Twitter, has become ubiquitous across virtually all social media platforms.  The hashtag (formerly known as the “pound” sign) has revolutionized the way information is organized, discovered, and shared online.  Social media users use hashtags – i.e., a keyword or phrase preceded by the hashtag symbol (#) – to identify social media posts or messages on a specific topic.  The hashtag functions as a searchable link, which can be clicked on to find other posts related to that specific topic.  The phenomenon is not just for millennials; brand owners have embraced the hashtag as a way to boost brand recognition, generate buzz around new products, engage with their consumers, and attract new ones.

It is no wonder that brand owners look to trademark law to protect their valuable hashtags.  The United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) has recognized the registrability of “hashtag marks,” but the legal community is still grappling with the legal nuances of this trend-turned-staple.

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Copyright on the Wild Side

With a Push of a Button, Monkey Raises New Question About Copyright Authorship and Ownership of Photographs

It’s been theorized that if you give a million monkeys a million typewriters, they will eventually produce the entire collected works of William Shakespeare. It’s been proven, however, that if a troupe of monkeys steals a camera, one will eventually take a really good selfie. By now you’ve probably heard this story, but just in case, the facts are as follows.

In 2011, British wildlife photographer David Slater traveled to the forests of Indonesia, equipment in tow, to follow and photograph the endangered crested black macaque species of monkey. According to news reports, during his trip, Slater set up his camera and tripod and briefly stepped away, and when he came back, a group of macaques had, in the words of The Telegraph, “hijacked” his camera, ultimately taking hundreds of shots. Many of the shots were, as expected, blurry or otherwise unusable, but several actually came out quite well, including a crystal-clear selfie of a female macaque showing off her large amber eyes and huge toothy grin. Slater sold the image to several publications, and soon the story – and the selfie – caught fire in the media, filling inches in the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Washington Post, among other media outlets. The selfie soon ended up on Wikimedia Commons (owned by the parent company of Wikipedia), which is advertised as a repository of over 22.3 million free public domain images. Continue reading

The Future of Video

Legal and Business Considerations

By Simon N. Pulman

Consumption of online video continues to grow at a rapid pace. Online video ad revenue is projected to reach nearly $5 billion in 2016, while premium streaming video distributors including Netflix, Hulu Plus and Yahoo are stepping up their licensing and commissioning of original content. Most industry observers believe that online video – notably to the extent consumed through mobile devices – is an important component in the future of the internet.

In order to capitalize upon the growth in online video, media companies (both traditional and emerging) are creating dedicated divisions aimed at developing and producing a full range of video content, ranging from micro-short form clips with strong potential for sharing via social media (e.g., Vine), to original series and even feature length motion pictures. Certain companies may also break away from traditional film and television formats to experiment with new forms of video and transmedia content.

In this new ecosystem, certain fundamental principles remain. Regardless of video format or distribution platforms, all innovative business practices must be built upon a strong foundation of legal experience, necessary due diligence and robust content production and distribution expertise. Nonetheless, there are a few business and legal issues that deserve special consideration by the next-generation video content company. Here are three issues to consider with respect to the future of video: Continue reading

Instagram Beats Attempt At Class Action Over Change In Terms Of Use

In Rodriguez v Instagram, CGC-13-532875 (San Francisco Sup. Ct. Feb 28, 2014), the Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco, rejected a proposed class action  lawsuit brought against Instagram LLC in connection with modifications to its original Terms of Use, instituted after the free photo-sharing platform was purchased by Facebook, Inc.  The lawsuit challenged Instagram’s ability to revise its Terms of Use to assert new rights over already-collected content. The ruling is a win for Instagram, and suggests that internet companies can take advantage of unilateral modification clauses in their existing terms of service contracts so long as they give users reasonable advance notice of material changes (and an opportunity to cancel their accounts before such changes take effect). Continue reading