Copyright

Gray v. Perry: The Pendulum Swings on Copyright Infringement Verdict against Katy Perry

By Scott J. Sholder

Following hot on the heels of the Ninth Circuit’s en banc decision clearing Led Zeppelin of copyright infringement allegations relating to the classic “Stairway to Heaven” (which we reported here), a California federal judge last week overturned a jury’s finding of copyright infringement against Katy Perry regarding the pop hit “Dark Horse.”  Songwriters still nervous in a post-“Blurred Lines” world will likely take solace in two decisions that – while in many ways different from Pharrell Williams’ and Robin Thicke’s case – solidify certain aspects of copyright law that may help musicians rest and write a bit easier.

The genesis of the “Dark Horse” case is not unlike any other you-copied-my-song litigation.  Plaintiffs, successful songwriters and musicians in their own right, sued pop star Katy Perry, several other songwriters, and the record labels and publishers behind “Dark Horse,” claiming that an eight-note ostinato – a “short musical phrase or rhythmic pattern repeated in a musical composition” – in “Dark Horse” was substantially similar to one in plaintiffs’ song “Joyful Noise.”  The alleged similarity between musical phrases as opposed to full musical compositions makes the “Dark Horse” case more like “Stairway to Heaven” than “Blurred Lines,” which dealt with infringement of an entire song.  This distinction informed the court’s legal analysis as well, as discussed further below.

After a two-week trial in the summer of 2019, a jury found the defendants liable for copyright infringement and awarded plaintiffs $2.8 million in damages, and the defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law (or for a new trial).  Courts will grant motions for judgment as a matter of law when there are no genuine factual disputes and “a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue.”  The court found these standards to be satisfied.

The court primarily addressed the evidence presented in support of the jury’s finding that the defendants’ ostinato was “substantially similar” to that of plaintiffs.  As we discussed in connection with the “Stairway to Heaven” case [here], courts in the Ninth Circuit apply a two-step test to determine whether two works are substantially similar.  Part one, the “extrinsic” test, sets forth a question of law for the court (often aided by experts) whether protected elements of the plaintiff’s work are objectively similar to corresponding elements of the defendants’ work.  Part two, the “intrinsic” test, asks the jury to decide whether an ordinary reasonable person would find that the “total concept and feel” of the works was substantially similar.  The court spent most of its analysis on part one.

As a threshold matter, the court explained that, where the work at issue consists of a combination of unprotected elements, an enforceable right in that combination only exists if the “elements are numerous enough and their selection and arrangement original enough that their combination constitutes an original work of authorship.”  This nuance is particularly relevant in music cases; citing “Stairway to Heaven,” the court explained that where “there is a narrow range of available creative choices” (such as notes in a scale or pleasing combinations of sounds) copyright protection is “thin” and to infringe, the allegedly infringing copy must be virtually identical.  The difference between this case and the “Blurred Lines” case, according to the court, is that the “thin copyright” doctrine typically will not apply to entire musical works (as opposed to constituent elements).  Citing its obligation to balance the First Amendment against the Copyright Act, the court also noted that the inherent nature of music as an art form was to borrow and build upon what had previously been created given that “many if not most of the elements that appear in popular music are not individually protectable.” 

With this backdrop, the court first analyzed the constituent elements of plaintiffs’ ostinato, including the key, phrase length, pitch sequence, rhythm “shape,” and musical texture.  Finding these elements to be individually common or even ubiquitous in pop music, the court held that “the uncontroverted evidence points to only one conclusion: that none of these individual elements are independently protectable.”  This conclusion was supported by testimony from the plaintiff’s own expert musicologist.

The same conclusion was apparent when analyzing the elements taken together as combined: their selection, arrangement, and coordination was not original enough to warrant protection as an original work of authorship.  The court held that the ostinato in “Joyful Noise” did not contain enough musical elements arranged in a “sufficiently original manner to warrant copyright protection.”  While it is possible that a musical phrase as short as eight notes could be protected, the court noted the dearth of on-point cases where “an otherwise unprotected musical phrase, isolated from the rest of the musical composition, in fact warranted copyright protection.”  The court explained that it was undisputed in light of the evidence at trial that “the signature elements of the 8-note ostinato in ‘Joyful Noise’” including its pitch sequence and rhythm, were “not a particularly unique or rare combination,” and that prior works composed by the parties and many others contained similar elements.  The ostinato’s musical timbre, its “pingy synthesizer sound,”’ and its use of minor key did not tip the scales.

The court accordingly held that the ostinato did not constitute protectable expression and therefore the extrinsic test (step one) failed, entitling the defendants to judgment as a matter of law notwithstanding the jury verdict to the contrary.  Although arguably not strictly necessary in light of this threshold ruling, the court went on to explain that, even if the plaintiffs’ ostinato was protectable, the defendants’ ostinato was not substantially similar.  Owing to the “thin” nature of the protection that would have been afforded to the plaintiff’s composition had it been deemed copyrightable, the degree of similarity would have had to have been “virtually identical” for a finding of infringement, and the evidence did not support such a conclusion given “a number of undisputed objective distinctions,” as corroborated by plaintiffs’ own musicologist.

Interestingly, despite the court’s conclusion that defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the extrinsic test (arguably obviating the need to address the intrinsic test), the court proceeded to opine on the jury’s finding of intrinsic similarity.  Because the intrinsic test is fact-sensitive and a question solely for the jury, the court held that, despite the court’s reversal on extrinsic liability, a reasonable jury could have found that the “total concept and feel” of the two ostinatos were “intrinsically” similar.  This of course did not change the outcome of the decision.

The court also found that there had been enough evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that the plaintiffs had accessed the defendants’ song.  Citing “Stairway to Heaven,” the court noted that reasonable minds could find that defendants “had a reasonable opportunity to [hear] plaintiff’s work” particularly in light of the current ubiquity of musical content and ready access to digital media online.  In such circumstances access could be established “by a trivial showing that the work is available on demand,” and “Joyful Noise” had garnered more than 6 million plays online, hundreds of concert performances, and a Grammy nomination.  But again, this did not change the result.

The “Dark Horse” case follows in the footsteps of “Stairway to Heaven” in establishing stricter boundaries around what musical elements are protectable but indirectly diminishing the importance of access in light of digital media and technological advancements.  As the decision is applicable to song elements like ostinatos, and arguably by analogy guitar riffs or solos, basslines, synthesizer accompaniments and the like – as opposed to entire compositions – it will likely cabin future claims concerning these discrete musical structures and reduce the likelihood that a songwriter or performer will be hit with a multi-million-dollar jury verdict for creating a single song element.  Decisions like “Dark Horse” and “Stairway to Heaven” will likely provide some comfort to musicians in being able to rely on those who came before them in writing their parts, but at the same time the decisions leave undisturbed the lessons from “Blurred Lines” when it comes to similarity of musical compositions in the aggregate whether one agrees with the outcome of that case or not.

Marc Hershberg was cited in the Fordham IPM&E Law Journal

“Anything You Can Use, I Can Use Better: Examining the Contours of Fair Use as an Affirmative Defense for Theatre Artists, Creators, and Producers,” by Benjamin Reiser, Fordham Intellectual Property Media & Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. XXX, No. 3 (2020).  Find the article here.

Ninth Circuit Rules in Favor of Led Zeppelin, Laying A New Foundation for Music Cases to Follow

By Phillip E. Jackman

When the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on en banc rehearing issued its opinion in the appeal of the widely reported Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven case on March 9, 2020, the court took a substantial step in providing guidance for future copyright infringement claims based on allegations of “substantial similarity” between songs. 

The music industry feared a potential seismic shift in how music could be created without exposure to copyright liability after a panel of Ninth Circuit judges voted 2-1 to uphold a jury verdict in favor of the heirs of Marvin Gaye on their claim against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in the Blurred Lines case. In her strong dissent, Circuit Judge Jacqueline Nguyen said the decision let the Gayes “accomplish what no one has before: copyright a musical style,” and warned that the decision expanded the potential for further copyright litigation.

Around the same that the Blurred Lines trial commenced, another seminal case was filed that addressed essentially the same issue – whether basic uncopyrightable elements of song writing, if selected and arranged in a certain manner, could then be deemed copyrightable.

In May 2014, Michael Skidmore, serving as the trustee for the estate of Randy California, late front man for the band Spirit, filed a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin, accusing the band of copying the famous intro to Stairway to Heaven from Spirit’s 1967 instrumental ballad called Taurus.  Skidmore claimed the portion of Taurus protected by copyright is the song’s 8-measure descending chromatic scale intro, which is similar to the descending chromatic chord progression in Stairway to Heaven.  In Los Angeles federal district court, a jury ultimately sided with Led Zeppelin because Skidmore did not satisfy the “substantial similarity” test, finding that although Zeppelin had access to “Taurus,” the elements of the song that were shared by Stairway to Heaven were not original enough to be protected under copyright law.

Skidmore appealed the verdict to the Ninth Circuit, arguing, among other things,that the district court erred in its decisions to apply the Copyright Act of 1909 to Taurus and not allow Skidmore to play for the jury the actual recorded version of Taurus to buttress his argument of substantial similarity between the songs.  The district court had only permitted Skidmore to put into evidence the “bare-bones” sheet music of Taurus deposited at the U.S. Copyright Office to demonstrate that the intro to Stairway was “substantially similar” to Taurus because at the time of its creation and under the 1909 law, sound recordings were not protected by copyright, only musical compositions.  In September 2018, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel sided with Skidmore, in part, and overturned the jury verdict due to its finding that the jury instructions failed to inform the jurors that unprotectable elements of a song could be protected by copyright law when “selected” or “arranged” in creative ways.

However, before the case went back to district court, the Ninth Circuit agreed to vacate the panel ruling and rehear the case en banc, indicating that the case presented many open questions for the future of music law.  In its decision, the full Ninth Circuit analyzed the two factors required by Skidmore to prove copyright infringement: (1) he owned a valid copyright in Taurus; and (2) that Led Zeppelin copied protected aspects of the work.

In consideration of the first factor, the court first had to decide whether copyright protection of Taurus would fall under the Copyright Act of 1909, or the 1976 revision and limited protection afforded sound recordings created after February 15, 1972.  This issue proved to be pivotal in the case because it was only with the passage of the 1971 amendment, followed by the Copyright Act of 1976, that Congress opened the door for artists (or labels) to obtain copyright protection over master sound recordings of musical compositions.  Up until this time, artists like Spirit could only submit sheet music for copyright registration under the 1909 Act.  The Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s holding by concluding “that the 1909 Act controls and the deposit copy [registered in 1967] defines the scope of the Taurus copyright.”  With this finding the Ninth Circuit closed the door on Skidmore’s argument that he should be able to play the recorded version of Taurus for the jury, since Skidmore did not own a valid copyright in the sound recording.

Armed only with copyright protection in a single page of sheet music, the Ninth Circuit then turned to the facts applicable to whether Skidmore had put forth sufficient evidence to satisfy the test that Stairway to Heaven was similar enough to Stairway to Heaven for unlawful copying to have occurred.  The Ninth Circuit uses a two-part test to determine whether works are substantially similar.  The first part compares the objective similarities of specific expressive elements in the works at issue, referred to as the “extrinsic test” and typically involves expert witnesses. The second part, known as the “intrinsic test,” looks at similarity of expression from the standpoint of the ordinary reasonable observer, with no expert assistance.

At trial, the jury had found in favor of Led Zeppelin on the question of whether “original elements of the musical composition Taurus are extrinsically similar to Stairway to Heaven,” and as a result did not move on the intrinsic test.  The Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s approach stating that “because the extrinsic test was not satisfied, the jury did not [need to] reach the intrinsic test.”

The final key issue in this case is that the full Ninth Circuit abrogated the “inverse ratio rule,” which had permitted a lower standard of proof to satisfy the “substantial similarity” test if a plaintiff could demonstrate that the alleged infringer had a high degree of access to the protected work.  During trial, neither party disputed the fact that, during the late-1960s/early-1970s, Spirit and Led Zeppelin played at various venues together on at least three occasions, but there is no evidence the groups never toured together.  One of Skidmore’s key arguments was that the district court erred by not submitting the “inverse ratio rule” to the jury.  The Ninth Circuit stated that “the Second, Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits have rejected the rule”.  And, in agreement with the district court, the Ninth Circuit further stated that “[b]ecause the inverse ratio rule, which is not part of the copyright statue, defies logic, and creates uncertainty for the courts and the parties, we take this opportunity to abrogate the rule in the Ninth Circuit and overrule our prior cases to the contrary.”

The court’s elimination of the reverse-ratio rule is a significant development and substantial clarification of the law in California that will likely be seen as a boon to creators of modern music.  Access to music is now more ubiquitous than ever, so it stands to reason that plaintiffs would inevitably be able to seize on the lesser standard of similarity in cases involving modern music. Of course, for those cases arising out of “classic” works like Stairway to Heaven, the abrogation of the reverse-ratio rule, may be seen as one less arrow in the copyright protection quiver.  How creators synthesize this ruling, whether in defense or pursuit of copyright claims, remains to be seen, but the impact will likely be a significant one.

The case is Michael Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin, et al, case number 16-56057, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Judge in Amateur Photojournalism Case Rejects Lack of Originality Argument

By Sara Gates

In a decision that will likely be seen as a victory for photojournalism, a judge in the Eastern District of New York recently rejected the legal argument that an iPhone photograph, taken by a passerby who was in the right place at the right time, lacked originality.  The decision represents a turn away from what the photography community would undoubtedly perceive as a slippery slope, i.e., if a court embraced a broad view that photographs captured by amateur photographers on their iPhones are not entitled to copyright protection.

The case pitted Alex Cruz, a passerby who captured a photograph of police apprehending a terrorist attack suspect in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City in October 2017, against Cox Media Group, which holds a large portfolio of TV and radio stations, newspapers, and websites.  After the photograph was posted to Instagram, Cruz licensed the image to media companies including CNN and NBC (https://www.nbcnews.com/slideshow/terrorist-truck-attack-shocks-new-york-city-n816236).  Cox, without seeking permission, published the photograph in a gallery on one of its websites, accompanying an article about the suspect, as well as on its social media channel.  Facing a copyright infringement claim, Cox later argued that Cruz’s photograph lacked sufficient originality to entitle it to copyright protection and support a copyright infringement claim.

Specifically, Cox alleged that Cruz did not make any creative choices in capturing the photograph, arguing that the photograph therefore did not possess a “modicum of creativity,” citing the oft-used language from Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991).  Judge Garaufis did not agree with this argument, finding that Cruz’s photograph reflected several creative choices, including timing (i.e., being in the right place at the right time) and his decision to take the photograph when he did (when law enforcement was apprehending the suspect, who was lying on the ground).

The judge applied the law of the Second Circuit, citing precedents such as Mannion v. Coors Brewing Co., 377 F. Supp. 2d 444 (S.D.N.Y. 2005), in which the Southern District of New York held that a photograph may be original in three respects: (1) rendition, (2) timing, and (3) creation of the subject, and Rogers v. Koons, 960 F.2d 301 (2d Cir. 1992), in which the Second Circuit recognized that “original” elements of a photograph may include “posing the subjects, lighting, angle, selection of film and camera, evoking the desired express, and almost any other variant involved.”

Though there may be instances in which a photograph is a slavish copy (such as in cases involving a photograph of a photograph), or a photograph serves a purely utilitarian purpose (such as showing what a standard Chinese menu item dish contains), where a photographer (whether amateur or professional) exercises any creative choices to capture the photograph, this decision supports the principle that photographers should be deprived of copyright protection.  Judge Garaufis recognized at least two creative choices relating to the timing of the photograph, but there were likely others, such as the angle and set-up of the shot.  With technological advances, the abilities of iPhone (or other mobile device) users to capture creative photographs with their devices, rather than a traditional camera, are greatly increased.  Aspects like depth of field, lighting, and frame can all be adjusted with a click of a button.  In this instance, notwithstanding whether Cruz used additional iPhone features to capture the photograph, the court found that he still exercised sufficient creative choices in deciding when, where, and from what angle to take the photograph to capture an inherently newsworthy event. Indeed, some of the most memorable moments of photojournalism are based on the photographer being at the right place at the time and knowing how to frame a compelling image (https://www.digitalphotomentor.com/20-most-famous-photographs/). 

Lack of originality is a difficult defense particularly in photo cases, as most photographs will be protected by copyright law, even if that protection is thin. Though judges should not place themselves in the situation of being arbiters of what is and is not art, oftentimes they are faced with the question of whether a work contains sufficient creative authorship to qualify for copyright protection, one of the prima facie elements of a copyright infringement claim.  This case represented a reasoned application of well-settled law despite an unconventional defense that may have prevailed under different circumstances and as applied to different forms of art.

This case is Alex Cruz v. Cox Media Group, LLC, Case No. 2:18-cv-01041-NGG-AKT (E.D.N.Y. March 13, 2020).

Nancy Wolff Fields Questions from the Digital Media Licensing Association (DMLA) on Copyright & Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Having recently attended a symposium co-sponsored by the United States Copyright Office and the World Intellectual Property Organization on Copyright & Artificial Intelligence, Nancy noted that as AI infiltrates modern life, the effects on the content licensing industry, creators and copyright will be enormous. Read all about it here.

CDAS Attorneys Author “Copyright 2020: Law & Practice” Chapter for Chambers & Partners

By Nancy Wolff, Scott Sholder, Sara Gates and Elizabeth Altman

Nancy Wolff, Scott Sholder, Sara Gates and Elizabeth Altman collaborated on this comprehensive discussion of current copyright law: what copyright is, how it works, what can/cannot be copyrighted, how it may be managed, what are the exceptions, and how to preserve copyright protection. Also addressed is copyright infringement, litigation and enforcement. Read the chapter here.

CDAS is a founding legal adviser to the Copyright Alliance and its attorneys hold leadership positions within the Media Law Resource Center (MLRC) and ABA IP Section. CDAS lawyers are officers and trustees of the Copyright Society of the USA, have been asked to speak on copyright-related issues throughout the world, and engage in advocacy work on behalf of associations in furtherance of copyright reform. CDAS lawyers have appeared in leading copyright cases, and also provide copyright clearance review for entertainment and media clients and trademark portfolio management.

Legal and Ethical Considerations for Your True Crime Podcast

By Mikaela Gross

Imagine you’re sitting on the next big true crime hit. The nonfiction genre has ballooned in recent years across media, particularly in the podcasting space where production costs are relatively low and there are fewer gatekeepers to content distribution. Long gone are the days when the choice was among America’s Most Wanted, 20/20, Cold Case Files, and Unsolved Mysteries. The first seasons of the true crime podcast Criminal and the investigative journalism podcast Serial were released in 2014. Netflix’s first season of Making a Murderer came out in late 2015. The immediate popularity of these series was evident in their ratings, and they have been followed by rapid exponential growth in the true crime and investigative journalism entertainment space.

While true crime is often equal parts edge-of-your-seat entertainment and hard-hitting journalism, it’s important to remember that part of your job as a journalist is to stay within the bounds of the law and maintain a high level of ethical standards. Here are some tips for how to do so.

(1) Observe best journalistic practices in conducting research and investigations.

One of the easiest ways to stay on the right side of the law – most critically, to enjoy the full protection of your First Amendment right to speak freely – is to follow universal standards of ethics in journalism. If you don’t work for a large media organization that promulgates its own code of ethics, don’t worry. The Society of Professional Journalists publishes their Code of Ethics online, and several news organizations such as The New York Times also make their internal ethical guidelines available to the public.

In keeping with the high standards of journalistic ethics, here are some key suggestions (but by no means an exhaustive list) for investigating and reporting on your true crime story:

  • Be careful about making promises to, or developing personal relationships with, sources. Whether a source is asking to be off the record or for anonymity, or has an expectation or implies an expectation of a quid pro quo exchange such as a favorable portrayal, making promises to sources can quickly become tricky when later reporting your story. Personal relationships do develop over the course of cultivating a source, and whether by mere appearance or in fact, these dynamics can undermine your authority on a subject and imply a bias, depending on the circumstances. In every situation, maintaining professionalism will be key.
  • Don’t get involved in any formal investigation. Remember – you’re a journalist, not a member of the police force, the prosecution team, or any other public agency. Don’t offer rewards for information or make assurances to victims or families, or the public, that you will get to the bottom of it.
  • There is always more than one side to a story. If you expect to make accusations against any individual or company in the final story, ask them for comment. Protect your neutrality by always giving the “other side” the opportunity to counter any allegations or defend their actions.
  • Know your rights (and the legal limitations) when it comes to newsgathering. This includes access to private property, whether you can record conversations without every participant’s permission, when to disclose who you are and what you’re doing and engaging or citing anonymous sources (especially government employees), and more. These rules may vary by jurisdiction, and things can get even trickier when dealing with digital media or communications that cross state lines.

(2) Vet your material from development stage through production.

When talking about real people and actual events, especially when criminal activity is alleged, you should be wary of crossing the line in certain areas of law, such as defamation and the right to privacy, and in some instances copyright law and the right of publicity. Fact checking and legal vetting should be part of your process.

A defamation claim could arise if you make a false statement of fact about another person that injures their reputation, and you did so either negligently or with what’s known as “actual malice.” If the plaintiff is a private individual, you would only have to be negligent in making that statement, whereas if the plaintiff is a public figure you would be at fault if you made the false statement with “actual malice,” that is, knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth.

A false light claim could also arise (depending on the jurisdiction) if you widely make a statement that portrays a person in a “false light” that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. The statement need not necessarily be a false statement of fact, but rather, create an implication, or inference, that is not true. In some ways this type of claim is similar to defamation, and they sometimes overlap, but it technically falls within the realm of privacy law. Note that reputational damage does not generally have to be proved under a false light claim – the harm caused here is emotional distress.

You could also face a claim for the publication of private facts, which is another type of privacy violation, if you publicly disclose a private fact about an individual that is offensive to a reasonable person, and the fact is not one of legitimate public concern. Unlike defamation and false light, there’s no requirement that the disclosure of information be false either in fact or in implication; rather, this sort of claim tends to arise when private information is made public that embarrasses the individual who is the subject of the statement. 

In addition, a right of publicity or misappropriation claim may arise if you use a person’s name, or identifiable features such as their likeness or voice, for commercial or other exploitative purpose. In most states, the ability to use a person’s name or likeness in expressive works such as films, books, and podcasts are protected by the First Amendment, and liability will not arise if the person’s name or likeness is also used in advertising for that expressive work provided it is truthful and therefore “incidental” to the protected expression. That said, the scope of right of publicity and misappropriation laws vary from state to state; for example, some states grant postmortem rights of publicity while others do not.

Finally, a copyright infringement claim could arise in a true crime story if you’re using third-party copyrighted materials without permission. You may need to consult an attorney for a fair use review of your podcast, in particular if the subject of your true crime story is or was an artist such as an author or musician, and you want to use their work in your story.

It’s a good idea to consult a lawyer early in the process when dealing with the type of risky subject matter typical of true crime stories, so you can avoid potentially costly or time-consuming changes later on in production. For starters, remember:

  • Just because you’re covering a high-profile case receiving attention across the media, and another media company (or five or ten) said something, it doesn’t mean it’s true. You generally won’t be protected from liability for defamation merely because you’re re-releasing information or materials first published by another source.
  • So too can copyright infringement liability arise from republication. Another project’s use of third-party material does not necessarily mean you’re free to use it, too.
  • If you’re digging back into a cold case, tread carefully when raising new facts and allegations, even against people implicated but never charged or convicted when the trail was still hot.

Be especially careful with secondary and tertiary figures in the story – in many cases, these minor figures are the ones who complain if they are portrayed in a negative light.

(3) Be creative (but not irresponsible!) with your advertising and promotional strategies.

It’s common for ads promoting a podcast to include snippets of statements and materials from one or more episodes in the series. In the promotional context, however, editing for duration and the addition of music or other sounds and materials can change the meaning or implication of a statement. In this way, you should be careful when promoting high-risk material and you may want to consult a lawyer to separately vet all marketing and advertising.

Similarly, additional copyright issues could arise if you’re using third-party copyrighted materials in the podcast and you want to use some of those materials in advertising. Do not assume the use in an ad is likely to qualify as fair use just because the use in the episode itself may be. The same considerations in the context of the content of the podcast do not necessarily apply to advertising for the series.

Finally, be careful what you agree to when entering sponsorship or other advertising deals. If a sponsor is asking for the right to use material from your story – including the names of individuals or snippets from episodes – to cross-promote their status as an official sponsor, be careful not to grant rights to use a person’s name and likeness that you do not have. A right of publicity claim could arise if you do.  

So be creative with promoting your hard-hitting story, but not so much so that you’re violating the law.

Fair Use in Gaming Content – FAQS For Creators

By Simon Pulman and Mikaela Gross

Fair use is one of the most important – and most misunderstood – concepts in the area of copyright law. It is an important concept for anyone who is using content owned by third parties – which includes anyone who livestreams gaming, creates “let’s play” videos or otherwise uses gaming assets and branding. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation on the internet and thus creators are often unclear about their rights and responsibilities.

With that said, here are answers to some frequently asked questions for creators:

What is Fair Use?

Fair use is an exception to the general principle that unauthorized use of a copyrighted work is copyright infringement. Simply put, if a claim of copyright infringement is brought against a defendant, the “defendant” can try to demonstrate they made a fair use of the allegedly infringed work in order to prevail in the case.

Because fair use is a defense, only a court can say whether a particular use of copyrighted material is a “fair use.” However, experienced attorneys can provide an opinion, based on their evaluation of the use using the four-factor test (see below) and their knowledge of case law.

What are the Four Factors?

Courts look at four factors when making a fair use determination

  • the purpose and character of your use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market.

The application of these four factors is nuanced and often complicated, but in short, the use of a copyrighted work is not likely to be fair use if it is used for the same or a similar purpose for which it was originally intended or in advertising/marketing materials, uses a lot of the original work including its most important parts (what the courts have called “the heart of the work”), and/or is used in a manner that competes with the market for the original work. It is more likely to be fair use if the new use is “transformative” in that it comments on, critiques, or otherwise adds new meaning to the original work in some way, if only a small portion of the original work is used (i.e., only enough for the user to make their point), and if the original work is not being used to advertise or otherwise promote the new work or use. So, if a video talks about, for example, loot box mechanics or the historical treatment of race in gaming by using game clips as examples, commenting on and analyzing those clips, it is probably more likely from a legal perspective to be fair use than straight game footage.

Note, however, that there is no bright line amount of use that constitutes fair use. For example, you can never assume that “if you use less than 5%, that’s fair use” – courts have found using only a line or two of text or music to be infringing. If you are in doubt, you should speak to a lawyer.

Is Crediting Important?

It’s nice, and may be considered best practices or industry custom, but it’s generally not relevant for a legal determination of fair use.

Can’t I Use a Disclaimer?

In short, no. Those disclaimers that you see on YouTube stating “This is a fair use. No copyright infringement intended” are generally not legally relevant. There is a small chance that they could be helpful to you in determining the damages that you owe in the event that you are found to be infringing, however, because they may bear on whether your intent was “innocent” or “willful.”

What if I get a DMCA takedown notice? And if a website removes my video, do I have any recourse?

The DMCA notice and takedown process provides copyright owners with a way to request removal of their copyrighted work from a website or other internet service if they believe the use infringes their copyright. To benefit from the “safe harbor” from copyright infringement the DMCA provides ISPs, the website or platform must designate a registered agent to receive and process DMCA takedown notices.  DMCA notices must include certain specific information to comply with the law, and the registered agent of the ISP has the job of reviewing and determining whether to comply with the takedown request.

An ISP, such as a platform that hosts gaming content, does not have to comply with a DMCA notice if the notice does not fully comply with the legal requirements for a takedown notice. However, if an ISP does remove content following receipt of a DMCA notice, it must also promptly notify the party that posted the video. That party then can file a counternotice if it believes the content was wrongfully taken down, for instance if the use of the copyrighted work is likely to be a fair use.

Whether you’re a platform looking to benefit from the protections of the DMCA safe harbor, or a content creator looking to correct an improper takedown of your video content, you should consult with an attorney to make sure you’re in compliance with the DMCA’s requirements, and are not taking any actions that could potentially subject you to liability down the line.

Will I Be Sued For My Videogame Videos?

This is where we have good news. Because video game publishers largely view streaming and game-related media to be helpful to their business (under the theory that exposing more people to the game will increase sales), publishers rarely bring copyright infringement lawsuits against gamers. The exceptions where publishers do bring legal action tend to arise in instances where users create new installments of games (what lawyers and courts would call “derivative works”) without authorization, insert other infringing material into games via mods, create and sell software “cheats,” or do something that is offensive in addition to being infringing (e.g., adding explicit or hateful material). In recent years, major players such as Take-Two Interactive and Epic Games have actively policed these types of infringements of their copyrighted games.

This means that it isn’t always necessary to apply the fair use analysis outlined above. However, those creators who are seeking to make heavy commercial use of game assets (other than solely streaming/YouTube video revenue) should consult with an attorney before embarking on their plans to ensure compliance with copyright law.

One of the greatest challenges in defending claims of copyright infringement in the gaming space seems to be the wildcard of the judge’s expertise and understanding of the emerging fields of gaming and streaming. A key defense strategy will inevitably involve a careful framing of the discussion, including describing how the game works, what the purpose of the video is, explaining the meaning of common terms, and the context and communities in which these activities exist online.

Moreover, everyone should keep an eye on the risk factors listed below.

What Red Flags should I be aware of?

While the use of gaming footage in the form of livestreaming and “let’s play” type videos rarely results in a claim, there are a number of uses that creators should be particularly cautious about:

  • Licensed music: Any game video that features licensed popular music is more likely to cause an issue with the game creators and/or the owners of the rights in the music being used. Creators are generally fine with exhibiting those videos on YouTube (which has a blanket license with multiple labels), but uses of music in other contexts or on other sites could trigger a DMCA takedown or a copyright infringement claim.
  • Choreography: Any videos that use choreography or dance moves tend to pose a higher risk. There has been a spate of recent choreography-related claims alleging that games have made unauthorized use of protected dance moves, in particular against Epic Games for the use of short animations in its game Fortnite. Choreography is probably an overlooked area (versus other areas of copyright risk) and thus it is not a fait accompli that the game publisher will have secured the rights, so a video creator could be pulled into a potential lawsuit. Obviously dance-focused games are highest risk, but other games that include “celebration dances” are also a risk. While many recent choreography-related claims have failed because copyright law does not protect simple routines or common social dances, they are nonetheless costly to defend and could become increasingly risky as the law develops in this area.
  • Street Art and Tags:  Videos that include any kind of pre-existing graffiti or tags, or even original designs that closely resemble a pre-existing artwork, are similarly susceptible to a copyright infringement claim. Street artists have become notorious copyright infringement plaintiffs in recent years, and like choreography, game creators may not have cleared the rights to these works. The unauthorized use of graffiti may also raise trademark and right of publicity claims, depending on the context in which the tag is used.  
  • Athletes and other Identifiable Real People: Any gaming footage that includes the recognizable likenesses of real people (e.g., sports games) is susceptible to a claim. This is not actually a copyright issue, but rather falls under what lawyers call “right of publicity” (i.e., a person’s exclusive right to make commercial use of their name [or alias], likeness and other identifiable features). User-generated content that inserts a real person into a game via a mod could also trigger a claim of this type, particularly from celebrities who regularly monetize their names and likenesses.

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.

CDAS Named a Top Tier Firm, Nationally, for Entertainment Law and Trademark Law in U.S. News – Best Lawyers® “Best Law Firms in America 2020,” and achieved High Rankings in Copyright and Media Law

CDAS achieved a Tier 1 ranking nationally for Entertainment Law – Motion Pictures & Television as well as Trademark Law. The firm was also ranked nationally in Tier 2 for Copyright Law. Within New York City, CDAS was ranked in Tier 1 for Entertainment Law – Motion Pictures & Television, Copyright Law and Trademark Law, and in Tier 3 for Media Law.

These competitive rankings are based on extensive client and peer review, focused on practice group expertise, responsiveness, understanding of business needs, cost-effectiveness, and other important parameters. Inclusion in “Best Law Firms” is considered a significant achievement.

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