Legal Blog

When Social Media Finally Holds Feet to the Fire, Trump Fires Back: Undermining the Communications Decency Act’s Safe Harbor by Executive Order

By Joshua M. Greenberg

Like most other providers of interactive computer services, such as websites or mobile applications that allow their users to post or contribute their own content, Twitter through its Terms of Service and community guidelines has long prohibited its users from posting or communicating, among other things, defamatory, profane, infringing, obscene, unlawful, exploitive, harmful, racist, bigoted, hateful, or threatening content through its service. Yet for many years, Twitter has declined to deactivate or take any further action against President Trump’s account, despite tacitly acknowledging that his tirades might very well violate these prohibitions, on the basis that the blusterous Tweets were nevertheless newsworthy. Facebook’s Marc Zuckerberg has similarly stood by his company’s decision not to fact check politicians on the platform, expressing concerns over free speech and democratic values and being an “arbiter of truth.”

That was until last week. On Wednesday, citing its civic integrity policy, Twitter added a label advising viewers to “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” from a page of curated news articles hyperlinked below two of President Trump’s Tweets that had falsely claimed California was “sending ballots to millions of people, anyone living in the state no matter who they are or how they got there” to seemingly undermine voter confidence in mail-in voting when, in fact, ballots were only being sent to registered California voters. Then on Friday, Twitter limited the viewability of President Trump’s Tweet about protestors in Minneapolis that contained the racially inflammatory trope “when the shooting starts, the looting starts” by placing the Tweet behind a notice stating the Tweet violated Twitter’s rules against glorifying violence before allowing viewers to click through to see it. In neither case did Twitter remove or delete the Tweets.

On Thursday, President Trump channeled his ire towards Twitter and other social networking platforms (namely, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube) who he believes are censoring speech, particularly conservative speech, into a highly controversial executive order. The purpose of the order was to undermine the immunity from civil liability found in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), 47 U.S.C. § 230(c), which protects interactive computer service providers and their users from liability for certain types of content posted or transmitted by users through those services, websites, apps, etc. and any actions or harm resulting from that content so long as the service provider or user, as the case may be, does not exercise control over the content akin to that of the publisher or speaker. Specifically, the law says, a provider or user of an interactive computer service will not be “treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” or be liable for “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected, or any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to [information provided by another information content provider].” Without this liability shield, operators of websites or mobile apps that contain user-generated content or facilitate communication between users will be open to civil liability for such causes of action as defamation, invasion of privacy, products liability and negligent design of the service, failing to screen users’ communications and protect them from one another, among others, for the content that they allow their millions of users to post, contribute, or transmit through their services, despite perhaps not having the resources—monetary, technological, personnel, legal, or otherwise—to police all user-generated content and communications flowing through their service.

The Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship clarified the federal government’s interpretation of CDA Section 230 to say that “the immunity should not extend beyond its text and purpose to provide protection for those who purport to provide users a forum for free and open speech, but in reality use their power over a vital means of communication to engage in deceptive or pretextual actions stifling free and open debate by censoring certain viewpoints.”  The executive order goes on to state that the safe harbor should not extend so far as to “provide liability protection for online platforms that—far from acting in ‘good faith’ to remove objectionable content—instead engage in deceptive or pretextual actions (often contrary to their stated terms of service) to stifle viewpoints with which they disagree.” The executive order directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to propose new administrative regulations to narrow the scope of immunity provided under the CDA’s safe harbor in a manner that would, among other things, draw greater scrutiny to the alleged misalignment between these companies’ stated policies and “good faith” enforcement and their algorithms for the content and users they promote or do not promote.  The administration framed this alleged discrepancy as a deceptive trade practice, again, harkening back to the notion that social media platforms disfavor conservative voices and viewpoints (despite a lack of evidence of such bias).

The executive order will surely be challenged in court and the long line of caselaw reinforcing the safe harbor in the interest of protecting freedom of expression on the Internet and service providers and their users from liability therefrom, as well as recent lawsuits alleging political bias by social media platforms, will likely render the executive order unenforceable. However, until then, the executive order has the force of law and the FCC and FTC will commence their rulemaking processes so, this policy shift is something every website or mobile app provider whose service contains user-generated content or communications—and the lawyers who represent them—should pay close attention to.

Proposed Guidelines for Resumption of Motion Picture, Television and Streaming Productions

By Amy Stein

Earlier this week, the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force released proposed policies and guidelines for the recommencement of productions, known as the White Paper. As of June 1, the White Paper was submitted to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Gavin Newsom for review.

The Task Force, comprised of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, major studios (e.g., Amazon Studios, Apple Studios, HBO, Netflix, Sony, Walt Disney, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Fox), and many guilds and unions (i.e., Director’s Guild of America, I.A.T.S.E. and its West-Coast Studio Local Unions and New York Local Unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Basic Crafts Unions, and SAG-AFTRA), sought expert advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, health care professionals, and industry professionals who know the ins and outs of production working conditions.

The White Paper is meant to be fluid and will evolve over time in conjunction with governmental suggestions and requirements. As of now, the White Paper is intended to create the initial road map to a safe return to production, which provides guidelines with respect to, for example, “regular, periodic testing of cast and crew for Covid-19,” “universal symptom monitoring, including temperature screening,” providing disposable masks which will be replaced each day, social distancing, as well as suggestions for access to mental and physical health resources.

While the White Paper will directly affect the productions produced under the studio and network system, it also provides a framework for independent films to follow (which frame work will have to comply with governmental requirements and protocols in the jurisdiction of production, and will have to be approved by the applicable guild(s)/union(s) of the production).

It should be noted that the White Paper is a set of recommendations for government authorization to commence production and has yet to be commented on by any governmental authority or department. The White Paper can be found here.

Character Exclusivity in Rights Deals

By Simon N. Pulman

In this increasingly competitive media landscape, companies are seeking to create entertainment brands that can endure, serve as the basis for dozens of hours of content on the new generation of owned-and-operated premium platforms, and extend across various forms of media. However, transmedia deals are seldom straightforward, and may create issues that one is less likely to encounter when negotiating a relatively simple deal for a book-to-film adaptation.

One such issue is character exclusivity – the idea that when an entertainment property has multiple rightsholders, certain characters (or, in hyper-complex instances, certain characteristics of certain characters) are owned exclusively by only one rightsholder. The phenomenon of character exclusivity (and the schism in a property that it tends to create) tends to arise from one of three main deal-making circumstances, as follows:

Creator Sequels

Traditionally, a purchaser in a rights deal acquired only one “installment” of a property, such as a novel. In the event that the author of that novel decided to write a sequel, the film and television rights in that sequel would typically be “held back” for a period of time (usually between three and seven years), and the purchaser of the first book would have a first negotiation right and some kind of matching right to acquire the rights in the sequel.

That structure is fine when one is acquiring a discrete novel for which a sequel is a hypothetical future possibility, and which would be (if written) a direct continuation of the original story. It works less well when a property is conceived from the ground up as a series, an anthology, or a shared universe (more on that below). However, even this relatively simple traditional structure begs the question: what happens if the original purchaser does not acquire a sequel?

Most studios include some form of the below language in their option agreements with respect to the creator’s reserved sequel rights:

“If Purchaser does not acquire any Author-Written Sequel, then Owner’s right to dispose of any rights in such Author-Written Sequel shall not include the right to produce or cause the production of any audiovisual production which contains any of the characters or incidents contained in the original Property.”

In essence, this language provides that a creator can sell sequel rights to a third party (subject to the holdback and first negotiation/matching right), but not rights to any characters that appear in the original work. So, to illustrate, the author of Bridget Jones could sell the screen rights to the second Bridget Jones book, but would not be permitted to grant rights to the character Bridget Jones (feel free to replace “Bridget Jones” with “Harry Potter,” “Harry Bosch,” “Frodo” or any other character of your choosing).

Suffice to say, this creates instant character exclusivity and in many instances makes the development of a sequel by a new buyer unworkable.

On the subject of “creator sequels,” it is also worth mentioning that contractual standards that were very simple when formulated to address the acquisition of discrete works such as novels or plays may be much less elegant in the modern world. For example, it may be difficult to discern the line between the “original property” and a “sequel” when you have an ongoing comic book series with multiple spinoffs. How about a true crime podcast anthology that presents multiple “seasons” focused on different crimes, under one united brand? Or what about a video game where updates are presented via a series of continuous downloadable updates, as opposed to individual and clearly separate releases at brick-and-mortar retailers?

These are issues that we are thinking about and addressing on a daily basis and should evidence why it is important that rightsholders and purchasers alike engage experienced rights counsel!

“Studio Created” Elements

Another provision commonly found in rights purchase agreements reads substantially as follows:

“The Reserved Rights do not include, and Owner will have no right to exploit or use, any new or changed element created by or for Purchaser and/or any new characters, new characterizations and other new elements from any production produced by Purchaser.”

Think of this as the “Daryl Dixon” clause. When AMC optioned and developed “The Walking Dead” comic books for television, they created Daryl as a new character. Daryl promptly went on to become one of the most popular characters in the series.

Because of the clause above, the comic book writer and publisher were not permitted to use Daryl in the source material – or in connection with any other reserved rights (such as video games and merchandising based on the comic book, as opposed to the TV series).

Historically, there were good reasons for this clause. It does not make sense for the author to be unjustly enriched by the studio’s creativity and investment, and the inclusion of a new character back in the original source material could trigger additional guild or contractual obligations (in essence, putting the purchaser on the hook for exploitation that it doesn’t control).

However, we are finally moving towards a paradigm where characters move fluidly across media and different forms of exploitation – where new movies are promoted in Fortnite, and where Freddy Krueger, the Demogorgon, and Michael Myers can all appear as killers in Dead by Daylight. In gaming in particular, there may be a compelling reason for a game publisher to be able to use a character in their games who initially appeared in a television series. Moreover, the expectation of audiences is increasingly that there will be some level of coordination and consistency across media, and so it may be necessary to reexamine the necessity of this clause in very specific circumstances.

Shared Universes

The concept of character exclusivity becomes particularly complicated in the instance of a “shared universe” – a vast sprawling story world that may encompass dozens of separate narratives that could be tied together by relatively obscure or minimal narrative threads. Think Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere or, of course, the Marvel Universe.

For a shared story universe, it is possible, or even likely, that different characters or story elements will be controlled by different rightsholders. This concept has become familiar to audiences due to the X-Men and Avengers living (up to now) in completely separate story universes – or via the high profile and very public negotiations that were necessary to bring Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Absent special arrangement, characters are “stuck” in one universe and cannot “cross over” – even if they did so routinely in the source material. This may lead to audience confusion and frustration.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and in addition to the aforementioned Spider-Man example, two characters were “shared” by Fox and Disney pre-merger – Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (who appeared in the X-Men franchise starting with Days of Future Past, and in the MCU starting with Avengers: The Age of Ultron (after a brief post-credits appearance in Winter Soldier). However, the two iterations of the characters were played by different actors and, there were purportedly very specific contractual stipulations on how they could be characterized in each universe.

While the concept of a “shared universe” applies mostly to superhero and fantasy worlds, there are still potential repercussions for creators in other genres. For example, an author who writes crossovers between two book series (as Michael Connolly has done with the Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer books), or includes an Easter egg type cameo in their romance novel with a character from another book may be inadvertently creating rights and contractual issues that must be carefully addressed (and may be potentially headache inducing). Of course, the most successful US author of all – Stephen King – does this routinely. But creators must be careful because it is unlikely that they have the leverage that King does over his intellectual property!

Second Circuit Limits Copyright Damages to Three-Year Period Before Suit

By Sara Gates

How do you square Psihoyos with Petrella, two of the most significant copyright statute of limitations cases in recent years?  Courts and attorneys alike have struggled with that question since the Second Circuit and the Supreme Court, respectively, handed down these two copyright decisions within the span of a month in 2014.  For the most part, courts have read the decisions separately, acknowledging the Petrella court’s three-year look-back period for a plaintiff’s recovery of monetary damages in a copyright action, while continuing to apply the Psihoyos court’s “discovery” rule, which extends the time when the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations period starts to run based on when the copyright owner “discovers” the infringement.

It was not until earlier this month that the Second Circuit took up the damages question in Sohm v. Scholastic Inc., No. 18-2110, 2020 WL 2375056 (2d Cir. May 12, 2020), and decided that, though the discovery rule is binding precedent in the circuit, the Supreme Court’s decision in Petrella counsels that there is a only a three-year lookback period from when suit is filed to determine the extent of monetary damages available.  Reversing the lower court’s decision on this point, the Second Circuit determined that a copyright plaintiff’s recovery is limited to damages incurred during the three years prior to filing suit.  The decision lends an advantage to copyright defendants where plaintiffs delay in bringing suit, yet still seek to recover expansive damages dating back as far as they can count. 

In the case, a photographer, Joseph Sohm, brought a copyright infringement action against Scholastic Inc., which had used 89 of Sohm’s photographs in various publications, outside the limited license granted by Sohm’s third-party licensing agent.  On cross-motions for partial summary judgment, the district court dealt with a host of copyright issues, ultimately finding that Scholastic only infringed the copyrights in six photographs.  Notably, the district court considered Scholastic’s arguments that the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations barred Sohm’s claims as to certain uses of the photographs, and that Sohm’s damages should be limited to those incurred during the three years prior to filing suit.  The court rejected both of Scholastic’s arguments, finding the discovery rule adopted by the Second Circuit in Psihoyos v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 748 F.3d 120 (2d Cir. 2014), was still good law and that the Supreme Court’s decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 572 U.S. 663 (2014), should not be read to establish a time limit on the recovery of damages distinct from the discovery-based statute of limitations.

On cross-appeal to the Second Circuit, Scholastic urged the court to forego the discovery rule, and to instead adopt an “injury rule” (i.e., so the three-year statute of limitations period starts to run from the time of the copyright owner’s injury), to determine when Sohm’s claims accrued for statute of limitations purposes.  Citing Psihoyos as binding precedent in the Second Circuit that had not been overturned, the court disagreed with Scholastic’s position and affirmed the discovery rule, sticking with the majority of the circuit courts that have adopted the rule.  Scholastic’s second argument, however, fared better.

Asserting that, even if the discovery rule applies, Scholastic argued that Sohm still should not be able to recover damages for more than three years prior to commencement of the action, relying on language from Petrella.  Specifically, Scholastic noted that the Petrella court stated: “[u]nder the [Copyright] Act’s three-year provision, an infringement is actionable within three years, and only three years, of its occurrence” and that “the infringer is insulated from liability for earlier infringements of the same work.”  Though Sohm opposed Scholastic’s interpretation, calling it dicta, the Second Circuit disagreed, finding that this portion of the opinion was necessary to the result, so it acts as binding precedent.  Accordingly, the Second Circuit concluded that, notwithstanding the discovery rule, the Supreme Court “explicitly dissociated the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations from its time limit on damages” and “delimited damages to the three years prior to the commencement of a copyright infringement action.”  

While the Second Circuit did not adopt Scholastic’s proposed injury rule, its holding severely limits the copyright owner’s recovery when the discovery rule is applied.  For example, if an infringement occurred ten years ago, but was only recently discovered, prompting the copyright owner to file suit, the copyright owner would only be able to recover damages for the three years prior to filing, and would not be able to “look back” through the ten years since the infringement. 

In deciding that Sohm could not recover damages more than three years prior to filing suit, the Second Circuit became the first circuit to adopt this interpretation of Petrella.  Though other district courts outside the Second Circuit have addressed the issue—including a district court in the Ninth Circuit, Johnson v. UMG Recordings, Inc., No. 2:19-cv-02364-ODW, 2019 WL 5420278 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 23, 2019), which took the opposite position and permitted damages outside the three-year period—until other circuits weigh in, it is unclear whether the Second Circuit’s interpretation will become majority rule or whether a circuit split again destined for the Supreme Court is on the horizon. 

COVID-19 Relief

By Tyler Horowitz

While certain states have started to ease lockdowns and shelter-in-place limitations, the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects have taken a toll on many lives, communities, and small businesses. One of the many challenges this unprecedented situation has spawned is how small business will weather the economic downturn it has caused. This situation has been particularly dire for the entertainment industry and businesses that are in early start-up stages as well as early stages of financing.

On March 27, 2020, the President signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act) to provide emergency financial and health care assistance for individuals, families, and businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic. On the financial side, the Small Business Administration (SBA) received funding and authority through the CARES Act to modify existing loan programs and establish a new loan program to assist small businesses nationwide that have been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 emergency.

For those small and medium-sized businesses who are unfamiliar with, or haven’t applied to, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or other similar state and federal relief programs, this post will provide a high-level overview of what such businesses need to know to pursue monetary relief.

Paycheck Protection Program

What is the PPP?

The CARES Act, in Section 1102, authorizes the SBA to temporarily guarantee loans in accordance with the terms and conditions of Section 7(a) of the Small Business Act. This relief program provides loans designed to incentivize small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll. Small businesses receive funds to pay for up to eight weeks of payroll costs including benefits, and the SBA will forgive the loan if all employees are kept on the payroll for that time and the money is only used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities. Applicants are required to submit a good faith certification stating the following:

  • The loan is needed to support ongoing operations;
  • The loan will be used to retain workers, maintain payroll, and pay for mortgage, lease, and utility payments;
  • The borrower does not have a pending application for a similar loan; and
  • The borrower did not get a similar loan between February 15, 2020 and December 31, 2020.

 Who can apply?

A business is eligible for a PPP loan if the business has not more than 500 employees and if its principal place of residence is in the United States. A business’ principal place of residence is determined in accordance with the guidelines set out in the Code of Federal Regulations (“C.F.R.”) §1.121-1(b)(2). Similarly, PPP loans are also available to 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations with fewer than 500 employees and the self-employed, sole proprietors, and freelance and gig economy workers.

In order to qualify under the PPP, a business must have been in operation during the “Covered Period” of February 15, 2020 – June 30, 2020. The loan may be used to ensure that a business meets its payroll obligations as well as any costs related to family leave, sick or medical leave, insurance premiums, commissions, or rent that is incurred during the Covered Period.

How is the loan size determined?

The loan size is calculated on a case-by-case basis as follows and in accordance with the terms of 13 C.F.R. § 120:

  1. Add all payroll costs for all employees whose principal place of residence is in the United States.
  1. Subtract any compensation paid to an employee in excess of a salary of $100,000.00 annually and/or any amounts paid to an independent contractor or sole proprietor in excess of $100,000.00 annually.
  1. Calculate the average monthly payroll costs (divide the number from Step 2 by 12).
  1. Multiply the average monthly payroll costs, calculated in Step 3 above, by 2.5.
  1. Add the resulting number to any outstanding amount of an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (“EIDL”; discussed below) made between January 1, 2020 – April 3, 2020 and subtract the amount of any EIDL advance.

On April 24, 2020, the SBA issued further guidance on how to calculate maximum loan amounts for each type of applicant (available here).  

How to apply?

You can apply through any existing SBA 7(a) lender or through any federally insured depository institution, federally insured credit union, and Farm Credit System institution that is participating. Other regulated lenders will be available to make these loans once they are approved and enrolled in the program. A list of participating lenders as well as additional information and full terms can be found here. These loans are first-come, first-served and the Government will continue to make disbursements so long as Congress provides funding.

Economic Injury Disaster Program

The EIDL Program is another option for small businesses administered by the SBA under Section 7(b) of the Small Business Act.  EIDLs are lower interest loans of up to $2 million, with principal and interest deferment available for up to 4 years, that are available to pay for expenses had the pandemic not occurred (e.g., payroll and operating expenses).

To qualify for an EIDL, your business must have suffered “substantial economic injury” from COVID-19. EIDLs are based on a company’s actual economic injury determined by the SBA (less any recoveries such as insurance proceeds) but the amount of the loan may not exceed $2,000,000.00.

Loan parameters

  • The eligibility period commences January 31, 2020 and ends December 31, 2020;
  • Any small business (including sole proprietorships, with or without employees) with 500 or fewer employees;
  • The interest rate on EIDLs is 3.75% fixed for small businesses and 2.75% for nonprofits. The EIDLs have up to a 30-year term and amortization (determined on a case-by-case basis);
  • The money can be used for payroll, rents or mortgages, or other operational costs;
  • Up to $200,000 can be approved without a personal guarantee; and
  • No collateral is required for loans of $25,000 or less. For loans of more than $25,000, a general security interest in business assets will be used for collateral instead of real estate.

Emergency advance

The EIDL Program provides an emergency advance of up to $10,000 to small businesses harmed by COVID-19 within three days of applying for an EIDL. To access the advance, you must first apply for an EIDL and then subsequently request the advance. The advance does not need to be repaid under any circumstance, and may be used to keep employees on the payroll or pay business obligations, including debts, rent and mortgage payments.

Applications and more detailed information can be found here.

Snapshot differences between PPP and EIDL

TermsEIDLPPP
Maximum Loan Amount$2,000,000$10,000,000
Interest Rates3.75%, up to 30 years (2.75% for non-profits)   Any portion of the loan not forgiven will be treated as a two-year loan with a 1% fixed interest rate  
Forgivable AmountOnly $10,000 of the emergency advance is forgiven100% forgivable provided employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is only used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities
Approved UsesRent, payroll, accounts payable, and any other expenses that could have been met had the pandemic not occurredPayroll expenses, rent, mortgage interest and utilities  
Collateral and Credit Check RequirementsYesNo

Can I Apply to Both?

Yes! However, it is important to note that you cannot use funds from both loans for the same purpose.

For example, you can’t use both EIDL and PPP funds towards payroll.

Additional Resources and News

In addition to PPP and EIDL, private companies have lent support for members of the entertainment industry. For example, Sony Music announced a $100 million Global Relief Fund to support not only medical workers, but also creators, artists, and other partners in the entertainment community who have been impacted by COVID-19.  Similarly, Live Nation Entertainment’s Crew Nation Fund is currently providing financial support to music crews who have been directly impacted by suspended or cancelled shows.

Further, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar, Chris Coons, Tim Kaine, and Angus King introduced the New Business Preservation Act . This legislation would create a new $2 billion program at the Treasury Department that would partner with states to invest in promising start-up businesses in areas of the country that do not currently attract significant equity investment and who are particularly vulnerable to the current economic crisis as a result of COVID-19.

Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP will continue to provide updates on legal developments related to the present crisis and we are available should you need further guidance.

Ninth Circuit Holds First Amendment Tolerates Whiskey-Inspired Parody Dog Toys in Trade Dress Spat

By Scott J. Sholder

A legal decision that simultaneously upholds the foundational tenets of free speech while quoting a dog toy’s claim to be “43% Poo by Vol” and “100% Smelly” is a welcome spot of levity in these trying and stressful times. The Ninth Circuit offered both in VIP Products v. Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc., a recent decision holding that the First Amendment shields parodic uses of trademarks and trade dress in consumer products.

Background

Between 2007 and 2017, VIP Products LLC (“VIP”) sold dog toys called “Silly Squeakers,” which were designed to look like bottles of well-known beverages “but with dog-related twists” – in this case, “Bad Spaniels” as a play on Jack Daniel’s. The Bad Spaniels toy, introduced in 2013, resembles a Jack Daniel’s bottle, features a picture of a dog, and sports the phrase “the Old No. 2, on your Tennessee Carpet” and the above-mentioned “alcohol” content description. (A bottle of Jack Daniel’s bears the phrases “Old No. 7 Brand Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey.”) VIP claimed that the purpose of its toys’ design was to comment on “the humanization of the dog in our lives” and “corporations [that] take themselves very seriously.”

Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc. (“JDP”) was apparently one of those companies and did not take kindly to VIP’s canine-inspired take on its iconic brand of spirits. In 2014 JDP wrote to VIP demanding that it “cease all further sales of the Bad Spaniels toy.” In response, VIP filed an action seeking a declaratory judgment of non-infringement or dilution of JDP’s trademark rights, a ruling that the “Jack Daniel’s trade dress and bottle design are not entitled to trademark protection,” and cancellation of JDP’s registered bottle design. JDP counterclaimed for trademark and trade dress infringement as well as trademark dilution by tarnishment.

After dueling summary judgment motions, the district court, among other rulings, denied VIP’s First Amendment defenses and confirmed the protectability of JDP’s trade dress. A four-day bench trial on JDP’s dilution claim and likelihood of confusion resulted in a ruling in favor of JDP and a permanent injunction against sales of the Bad Spaniels toy. VIP appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued a mixed ruling, affirming the protectability of JDP’s trade dress but reversing the lower court’s ruling on the First Amendment.

Ninth Circuit Decision

The appeals court, in addressing VIP’s First Amendment defense, explained that the Lanham Act’s “likelihood of confusion” standard generally “seeks to strike the appropriate balance between the First Amendment and trademark rights,” but in the context of artistic expression, a more stringent test in favor of free speech applies because likelihood of confusion “fails to account for the full weight of the public’s interest in free expression.” The Ninth Circuit explained that it had adopted, in Mattel, Inc. v. MCA Records, a test originally promulgated by the Second Circuit in the seminal case Rogers v. Grimaldi, which dealt with protectable names used in the titles of expressive works. That test requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that a defendant’s use of the plaintiff’s name/mark in an expressive work is either (1) “not artistically relevant to the underlying work” or (2) “explicitly misleads consumers as to the source or content of the work.” The court’s analysis focused on the threshold issue of why a dog toy is considered an expressive work, the key question being whether the work “communicat[es] ideas or express[es] points of view.”

The panel explained that expressive works are “not rendered non-expressive simply because” they are sold commercially, yet do not need to be the “expressive equivalent of Anna Karenina or Citizen Kane.” The Bad Spaniels toys were expressive works because they communicated a “humorous message” through “word play to alter the serious phrase that appears on a Jack Daniel’s bottle – ‘Old No. 7 Brand’ – with a silly message – ‘The Old No. 2.'” The juxtaposition of an “irreverent representation of the trademark with the idealized image created by the mark’s owner” rendered the Bad Spaniels toy a First Amendment-protected work conveying the message that “business and product images need not always be taken too seriously.” This message was key; the vessel of the dog toy was effectively deemed irrelevant (and, the court noted, its conclusion was consistent with a 2007 Fourth Circuit decision protecting parodic dog toys based on Louis Vuitton hand bags).

As a procedural matter, the court did not address the substance of the two-prong Rogers test because the district court had not even found that Bad Spaniels was an expressive work. The court therefore vacated the lower court’s finding of infringement and remanded for an analysis of the Rogers test.

The Ninth Circuit panel went on to reverse the trial court’s ruling that VIP had diluted JDP’s trademark because noncommercial use of a mark is not dilutive, and VIP had not engaged in purely commercial speech. Specifically, VIP had done more than simply propose a commercial transaction by creating “protected expression” even though it was selling a product. Because VIP’s humorous message was protected by the First Amendment, its use of the JDP trade dress could not have diluted JDP’s brand.

The VIP case is the most recent example of the continued expansion of the Rogers test into a more encompassing First Amendment safeguard, at least in the Ninth Circuit. In 2008, the Ninth Circuit held in E.S.S. Entertainment 2000, Inc. v. Rock Star Videos, Inc., that, in the context of video games, the Rogers test applied not only to trademark use in titles of artistic works, but also to material in the body of the works. And just two years ago, in Twentieth Century Fox Television v. Empire Distribution, Inc., the court held that Fox’s use of the name “Empire” for its hit TV show was protected by the First Amendment against claims of trademark infringement by record label Empire Distribution, opening the Rogers umbrella to cover Fox’s promotional uses of the “Empire” mark for live musical performances, cast appearances, and on consumer goods like T-shirts and champagne glasses. The VIP decision represents a predictable next step of expansion of the Rogers doctrine out of the realm of creative media properties like television and video games (for which merchandising is ancillary) to consumer goods as a distinct category of creative expression.

VIP is a clear victory for creators of expressive works, reinforcing the importance of balancing trademark rights with artistic expression and the ability of creators of even garden-variety consumer products to make a living from the fruits of that expression. Brand owners, on the other hand, will likely see the decision as a weakening of trademark protections and a blank check for content creators to profit from uses of marks outside traditional artistic content. Of course, VIP is only binding in the Ninth Circuit, but it stands to reason that other like-minded courts such as the Second Circuit (originator of the Rogers test) and the Fourth Circuit (which addressed the Louis Vuitton dog toy case mentioned above) may follow suit. While creators of expressive products may take some more comfort in their First Amendment rights, trademark proprietors should carefully assess the facts of brewing disputes, especially in these circuits, before asserting claims. And, particularly with parody products, brand owners should consider whether litigation is the best solution or if there are other compromises like disclaimers or outside-the-box business solutions.

This article was published by the Media Law Resource Center (MLRC) on May 6, 2020

Supreme Court Rejects Willfulness Requirement for Profit Awards in Trademark Infringement Actions

By Sara Gates

In a recent decision of considerable importance for trademark practitioners, the U.S. Supreme Court finally resolved a longstanding split among the circuits when the Court held that willfulness is not required to award the plaintiff profits in a trademark infringement action. Romag Fasteners, Inc v. Fossil, Inc., No. 18-1233, 2020 WL 1942012 (U.S. Apr. 23, 2020). Justice Gorsuch delivered the majority opinion in the unanimous decision, expressly rejecting the willfulness prerequisite to profit awards adopted by the Second and Ninth Circuits, which both handle a high volume of the nation’s trademark cases.

Background

The case before the Court involved a dispute over handbag fasteners between Romag Fasteners, Inc., a company that manufacturers the fasteners, and Fossil, Inc., a company that uses the fasteners on its handbags. For years, Romag and Fossil worked together under an agreement that permitted Fossil to use Romag’s fasteners on its handbags. As Romag later discovered, however, factories in China making Fossil products were using counterfeit fasteners, instead of Romag’s products. Believing that Fossil was not policing these factories, Romag sued Fossil for trademark infringement and false representation (along with other claims, including patent infringement).

The issues of fact went to the jury, which agreed with Romag’s view and found that, while Fossil had acted with callous disregard, its actions were not willful. Though the jury made its advisory awards, the Judge Janet Bon Arterton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut determined that Romag could not recover Fossil’s profits on the trademark infringement claim without a finding of willfulness. On appeal to the Federal Circuit, the Court upheld the district court’s decision, finding that it was consistent with Second Circuit precedent (the District of Connecticut sits within the Second Circuit). Romag’s writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court followed, and the Court granted the writ, presumably to resolve the outstanding circuit split that has persisted for more than 20 years.

Decision

The Court did just that in its recent decision, which fully and finally rejected the view that a showing of willfulness is a prerequisite to a profit award in trademark infringement actions. As the Court explained, while the infringer’s state of mind is certainly an important and valuable consideration, it is by no means a requirement for a court to award a trademark owner the infringer’s profits.

In reaching the decision, the Court relied heavily on the text of the Lanham Act, the statute governing recovery of federal trademark violations, and, specifically, 15 U.S.C. § 1117, the Lanham Act’s damages provision. The Court pointed out that states of mind, or mens rea, are carefully addressed in that section of the statute, as they are throughout the entirety of the Lanham Act. For example, the plain text of § 1117(a) provides for recovery of an award of the infringer’s profits for any violations of 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a) (i.e., trademark infringement), but for violations of § 1125(c) (trademark dilution) the statute clearly requires a willful violation for such an award:

When a violation of any right of the registrant of a mark registered in the Patent and Trademark Office, a violation under section 1125(a) or (d) of this title, or a willful violation under section 1125(c) of this title, shall have been established in any civil action arising under this chapter, the plaintiff shall be entitled, subject to the provisions of sections 1111 and 1114 of this title, and subject to the principles of equity, to recover (1) defendant’s profits, (2) any damages sustained by the plaintiff, and (3) the costs of the action. . . .

17 U.S.C. § 1117(a) (emphasis added).

The Court determined that the use of the term “willful” in one instance in § 1117(a), but not in another, indicated Congress’ intent with regard to how mental states should be treated vis á vis profit awards for particular violations. Likewise, in other sub-sections of § 1117, mental states are included judiciously in certain instances, but not others. As the Court, in its interpretation of the law, is careful not to read words into statutes that are not present, it declined to adopt the Second and Ninth Circuit’s interpretations and read in a “willful” requirement for violations of § 1125(a).

The Court similarly rejected other arguments lodged by Fossil, again turning to the text of the statute. For instance, Fossil argued a profit award was appropriate pursuant to “principles of equity” in § 1117(a). The Court discussed the definition and meaning of “principles of equity,” finding it unlikely that Congress intended for this language to denote such a narrow rule regarding profit awards. Even considering pre-Lanham Act case law, the Court again noted that there was no clear rule regarding a willfulness prerequisite, leading the Justices to the conclusion that, at most, mens rea was an historically important consideration in awarding profits but never a requirement. As the Court pointed out, the importance of mens rea has continued under the Lanham Act, as reflected in the provision of greater statutory damages for willful violations in § 1117(c). Finally, the Court briefly rejected Fossil’s policy argument, stating that the Court would instead leave the policy decisions to the policymakers in Congress.

With this decision, trademark plaintiffs will face one less obstacle when establishing their entitlement to an award of a defendant’s profits. In practical terms, courts will likely see fewer motions for summary judgment on willfulness, as defendants may no longer use this tool to foreclose a plaintiff’s ability to obtain the defendant’s profits. Though the Court’s decision that courts may award profits absent a finding of willfulness may, in theory, open the doors to more profit awards, it is unlikely to result in windfalls to plaintiffs. As courts have long recognized, the infringer’s state of mind bears on the relief the trademark owner should receive.

The Supreme Court echoed the well-established notion that an infringer’s state of mind bears on the relief the plaintiff should receive when it clearly articulated that a defendant’s mental state “is a highly important consideration in determining whether an award of profits is appropriate” in trademark infringement actions. Romag, 2020 WL 1942012, at *4. There is just no particular mental state required for profit awards, so it remains in the discretion of the courts, and juries, to determine what is appropriate under the circumstances.

This article was published by the Media Law Resource Center (MLRC) on May 6, 2020

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/

Three Tips for Broadway Producers Recording their Shows for Streaming Platforms

By Frederick Bimbler and Marc Hershberg

Broadway producers interested in recording musicals for streaming platforms should pay attention to a new lawsuit.

The complaint was filed by Chapman Roberts, a Broadway music arranger, and alleges that a team of Broadway producers entered into an agreement with the plaintiff in 1994 to make original vocal arrangements of some famous songs from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for their musical revue, Smokey Joe’s Café. According to the complaint, the contract stated that Roberts’ arrangements in the show could not be performed, transcribed, recreated, copied, published, or recorded without his permission.

But, according to the complaint, in 1999, Broadway Television Network recorded a couple of performances of the Tony Award-nominated show without Roberts’ permission.

“When Roberts learned of this, he contacted BTN, and BTN then asked retroactively for permission to commercially distribute the recording of the [m]usical to the public,” his lawyers claim. But, it is alleged that no agreement was ever reached, and Broadway Television Network broadcast the recording as several pay-per-view events and then licensed it for distribution through BroadwayHD, a video on-demand service for musicals and plays.

More recent digital streaming licenses of the recording purportedly have occurred, and in October, Roberts sued Broadway Television Network, BroadwayHD, and several other related parties in federal court, alleging direct and contributory copyright infringement and the intentional and knowing distribution of false Copyright Management Information.         

The merits of this lawsuit aside, which the court will decide in due course, Broadway producers should bear in mind the following three lessons from the allegations in the lawsuit.

1.     When creating an audiovisual recording of a theatrical production, Broadway producers should be certain to obtain all of the necessary rights. Experienced entertainment attorneys can help producers determine which rights are necessary and who owns them – and then negotiate the deals for those rights.

2.     The rights to various protectible elements required to perform a work on stage do not necessarily include the right to create and exploit an audiovisual recording of the same work on stage. While some contracts might include provisions that address audiovisual productions, for many elements of a theatrical production, it is likely that the audiovisual rights will need to be granted in a separate license agreement.

3.     If Broadway producers cannot successfully obtain all of the necessary rights for an audiovisual recording of a theatrical production, then they should not proceed with distributing the recording. Missing some of the necessary rights will frustrate deals with distributors who do their homework, and the recording might result in a lawsuit, like this lawsuit involving Smokey Joe’s Café.

The case is Chapman Roberts v. BroadwayHD LLC et al., Index No.: 1:19-cv-9200 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 4, 2010).

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.

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