Litigation

California District Court Dismisses “Tiger King” Case, Citing First Amendment Interests

After captivating home-bound viewers earlier this year, Netflix’s documentary series “Tiger King” had its day in court recently when a California district judge dismissed a case brought by the publisher of Hollywood Weekly Magazine (“HW”) against the producers and distributors of the show.  See Prather Jackson v. Netflix, Inc., Case No. 2:20-cv-06354-MCS-GJS (C.D. Cal. Dec. 9, 2020).  The magazine complained that Netflix had used two of its trademarks in the show: (1) the magazine’s name, and (2) “Tiger King,” a term which HW claimed that it had coined in 2013 when it published a series of articles that profiled Joseph Maldonado-Passage a/k/a Joe Exotic, who is now widely known as the Tiger King.  On Netflix’s motion to dismiss, Judge Mark C. Scarsi of the Central District of California determined that First Amendment interests in the expressive work “Tiger King” outweighed HW’s Lanham Act claims.

The dismissal adds to a growing body of case law stemming from the Second Circuit’s 1989 decision in Rogers v. Grimaldi.  In that case, actress and dancer Ginger Rogers asserted Lanham Act claims against the producers and distributors of a film entitled “Ginger and Fred”; the court considered how the Lanham Act should be construed so that it does not intrude on First Amendment values.  The Second Circuit adopted a test to determine when the Lanham Act should apply to artistic or express works—namely, when the use has “no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever,” or when it “explicitly misleads as to the source or the content of the work.”  Though the use in question before the Rogers court was the name of a celebrity in the title of a film, the Second Circuit’s test has been extended to apply when a Lanham Act claim is asserted against a use of a trademark within an expressive work. 

As the Ninth Circuit adopted the Rogers test in 2002, the California district court was obliged to apply it to HW’s four Lanham Act claims for trademark infringement of its two marks, dilution, and false designation of origin, and in doing so, rejected HW’s arguments.  Applying the first  “artistic relevance” factor, the court considered the use of term “Tiger King” as both the title of Netflix’s documentary and within scenes throughout the film.  Notably, the term was used to refer to Joe Exotic, as he himself used it on merchandise, in the name of his reality television show, and in his short-lived campaign for president, which the documentary detailed.  The series also depicted issues of the magazine, bearing HW’s name, as Joe Exotic proudly showed off the articles that dubbed him the “Tiger King.”  As artistic relevance is a low threshold—the use of the mark need only have “some relevance” to the work—the court determined that this prong was easily met, because the documentary chronicles the life and business of Joe Exotic, who is publicly known as the Tiger King.

For the second prong of the test, the court considered whether Netflix’s use of the unregistered “Tiger King” mark would make the public believe that HW was somehow behind the documentary or sponsored the work. Because the question is whether the work explicitly misleads—or as the Rogers court put it, the work contains an “explicit indication,” “overt claim,” or “explicit misstatement”—the court was not satisfied by HW’s inability to point to any statement in the series that explicitly misled about the sponsorship of the documentary.  In its complaint, HW relied upon conclusory legal statements, rather than any allegations of explicit deception that would satisfy the second prong of the Rogers test.  The court applied the same analyses on the first and second prongs for the “Tiger King” mark to the HW mark and determined that Netflix’s use of the magazine’s name in the series did not give rise to actionable Lanham Act claims.

Additionally, the court dismissed HW’s copyright infringement claim over Netflix’s depiction of certain issues of the magazine, citing the deficiencies in HW’s allegations regarding what works their cited registrations covered and which parts of the copyrights Netflix infringed.  Though Netflix had also briefed a fair use argument for this claim, the court did not reach it since it determined that HW’s copyright infringement claim failed on the face of HW’s pleading.

Although HW can assert Lanham Act claims regardless of the federal registration status of its two trademarks, it is worth noting that HW is also facing an uphill battle with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”) over the registration of the “Tiger King” mark, which has become quite popular over the past year.  Notably, while HW claimed to have coined the term in 2013, it did not file for federal registration until July 2020 after the Netflix series had debuted and a host of others had already filed applications for the same mark.  HW is currently facing an office action from the USPTO, which is refusing registration on numerous grounds including the words Tiger King’s failure to function as a trademark.

The dismissal in this case is the latest decision in a robust and growing line of case law balancing First Amendment interests against Lanham Act claims.  As most courts have adopted the Rogers test (or some iteration thereof), the “Tiger King” decision provides further armaments to litigants facing Lanham Act claims for their use of a mark or other protected designation in an expressive work.  Clients clearing rights in expressive works should remember to consider the Rogers test, in addition to other commonly used doctrines like classic or nominative fair use and, when in doubt, seek legal counsel.

New York Enacts a Post-Mortem Right of Publicity Law and Addresses Deep Fakes

Joining the majority of states, New York recently enacted a new right of publicity statute that extends the right past death.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation on November 30, 2020, establishing a right of publicity (N.Y. Civ. Rights Law § 50-f) for deceased persons (and their descendants) domiciled in New York to protect against the commercial exploitation of the person’s name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness after death.  However, unlike other post-mortem right of publicity laws that are broader in reach, New York’s statute carries a caveat—the post-mortem right only protects persons whose rights of publicity have commercial value either at the time of their death or because of their death.

In addition to the “commercial value” requirement, which the legislation employs by providing a definition of the qualifying person who is referred to as a “deceased personality,” Section 50-f also contains a few other restrictions.  Notably, the law only protects qualifying deceased personalities for a period of forty years after death.  As the legislation also makes clear, the statute will not have retroactive effect, and will not take effect until May 29, 2021. 

The legislation leaves New York’s other rights of privacy/publicity statutes for living persons—N.Y. Civ. Rights Law § 50 and § 51—untouched yet goes further than Section 50, by extending the right to protect against exploitation of a deceased person’s “likeness, whereas the statute applicable to the living only protects “name, portrait or picture.”  Additionally, the statute is one of the first to restrict “deep fakes” and provides protections to “deceased performer[s],” which is broadly defined, against deceptive use of their “digital replica[s] in a scripted audiovisual work as a fictional character or for the live performance of a musical work.”  Disclaimer language can be used to avoid liability.

The new post-mortem statute provides that these rights may be transferred by contract, license, trust, or will, but successors in interest must register the right with the Secretary of State in order to be able to bring a claim.  Section 50-f also includes provisions authorizing statutory damages of $2,000, in addition to profit awards from attributable unauthorized use and punitive damages, but no attorneys’ fees.

Notably, the statute contains specific exceptions to provide First Amendment breathing room, for both newsworthy and expressive works.  As New York is home to many entertainment, broadcasting, publishing, sports, and arts industries, specific exemptions cover the publication of literary, educational, and other audio-visual and creative works for broad purposes including political, public interest, and newsworthy uses, such as for comment, criticism, parody, or satire.  Significantly, for the television and film industry, it clearly protects documentaries, docudramas, and historical or biographical works, regardless of the degree of fictionalization.

The enactment of Section 50-f is a win for celebrities, unions, and advocacy groups that have led efforts to expand the state’s right of publicity law to provide post-mortem rights, while at the same time giving the entertainment industry clear carve-outs from liability.  New York has for a long time remained a notable holdout, while other states have passed expansive descendible statutory rights of publicity, treating the right as a property right, transferable at death instead of a personal right that expires at death.  As New York does not recognize common law protection for rights of publicity, the passage of an enhanced statutory right was necessary to permit recognition of post-mortem rights in the state, which first passed its statutory right of publicity bill for living persons in 1904.

New York Passes Anti-SLAPP Legislation to Protect Speech Rights

On November 10, 2020, Governor Cuomo signed into law a robust expansion to New York’s existing anti-SLAPP legislation, in a significant effort to curb lawsuits filed with the goal of intimidating and suppressing free speech. Amending New York’s current statute—Sections 70-a and 76-a of the New York Civil Rights Law—the law addresses the problem of “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” which threaten burdensome, costly, and time-consuming litigation in order to chill defendants’ speech.

Although New York has had anti-SLAPP legislation on the books since 1992, its provisions were narrow, protecting only against lawsuits brought by a “public applicant or permittee” against defendants who had spoken out against an application or permit, such as a real estate developer that sued a citizen who opposed a project. Under the prior enactment, free speech in a broader context was unprotected, leaving defendants who work within the media or entertainment fields without much recourse against speech intimidation suits, a particularly troubling oversight for the nation’s media capital.

However, the signing of the new legislation, which passed the New York legislature in July, broadens New York’s approach considerably, bringing it into line with a growing number of states, including California, Nevada, Georgia, Colorado, Oregon, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, as well as Washington D.C., that have also worked to enact or strengthen anti-SLAPP laws. New York’s law now covers any speech or other lawful First Amendment conduct that relates to an issue of public interest. The law specifically applies to “any communication in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest” or “any other lawful conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of free speech in connection with an issue of public interest, or in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition.” The law commits to broad speech protection, providing that “public interest” should be broadly construed to mean any subject other than a purely private matter.

In practice, the New York law provides defendants an effective, powerful tool by allowing them to file an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss. Upon such a motion, the court must stay discovery, as well as pending hearings and motions while it makes its determination, although a court may order limited discovery to allow a plaintiff to respond to the motion. During this time, a court must also consider supporting and opposing affidavits—meaning that a defendant need not solely base his or her motion to dismiss on the pleadings or items for judicial notice—and a court must grant preference in the hearing of the anti-SLAPP motion. A judge must dismiss a case where a defendant has shown that the claim surrounding his or her speech or conduct lacks “a substantial basis in law or is [not] supported by a substantial argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.” In such cases, the plaintiff must cover the defendant’s legal fees. These provisions undercut the luster of SLAPP lawsuits in the first instance, as defendants can potentially stop a case early in its tracks—filing a motion to dismiss prior to discovery, in fact—and saddle plaintiffs with mandatory fees, should the motion be successful.

Although it remains to be seen how the law will be interpreted and carried out by New York courts in practice, other states with similar anti-SLAPP laws provide some guidance. For instance, other states to consider the meaning of “public forum” under their legislation have extended the designation to websites accessible to the public, as well as blogs and email listservs. California courts have held that determining whether a communication has been made in connection with an issue of public interest requires a consideration of the context of the statement, as well as its content. Litigants in other states have invoked anti-SLAPP statutes in a wide variety of cases, from business disparagement and tortious interference with contract or business relations to false light, false advertising, malicious prosecution, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract.

One of the bill’s drafters commented that it was indeed President Trump who had provided an impetus for the bill, considering his history of filing frivolous lawsuits against critics, in order to harass, intimidate, and bankrupt them. With the law’s signing this November, New York is poised to curb such meritless litigation and may serve as a model for other states, as it ascends the ranks to have one of the strongest anti-SLAPP laws nationwide.

Homeowner Turns to Copyright to Protect Against Unauthorized Use of Home in Adult Films

What recourse exists when a tenant hands over a rental home to an adult film production company, which proceeds to film fourteen feature-length adult movies onsite, without the owner’s knowledge or permission, over the course of five months? Turns out, copyright law.

This was the crisis facing Martha’s Vineyard homeowner Leah Bassett in 2015, when she discovered that a tenant, in violation of his lease, had handed over her property to adult film producer Monica Jensen and her Canadian distribution company, Mile High Distributions, which proceeded to use the personal residence as the shooting locale and backdrop for an extensive series of pornographic films. Bassett sought redress via 11 legal claims, including a claim for copyright infringement, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in March 2018 (captioned Bassett v. Jensen, 1:18-CV-10576).

Why turn to copyright? Considering that Bassett had leased her home willingly, the court refused to permit a number of Bassett’s original claims, of particular note, trespass. Lacking real property protection, Bassett focused on other avenues of relief, including intellectual property, asserting protectable ownership of the rights to art that she had created that was situated within her home and depicted, by consequence, in the films.

Bassett’s copyright claim surrounded alleged copyright violations from the use of her own artworks in the background of the films, including sketches, hand-stitched pillows, a fireplace, and a hand-painted table. Although Mile High’s attorney argued that he “would bet [his] life savings . . . if you polled every juror in the world, not one would say, ‘I saw this film and focused on the etching or the stitching on the slipcover,’” Bassett nonetheless argued—prior to an official accounting—that the total time for the works on film was not insignificant under copyright law, ringing in at 473 seconds, or a little under eight minutes.

To combat a de minimis use defense, Bassett ultimately provided a detailed accounting of the duration of the works’ onscreen appearances to the court, which had itself declined to watch—or require a jury to watch—the films. Citing the Second Circuit’s seminal Ringgold v. Black Entertainment Television, Inc.,which had also addressed the depiction of a copyrighted work used as set decoration in a filmed program, the court noted that copyright owners could enforce the use of works featured in the background of a shot provided they are clearly visible, such that the medium and style of the work may be discerned by the average lay observer. The court considered the benchmark for quantitative significance to be the point at which an artwork had appeared, clearly visibly, for at least 30 seconds on film, whether at one time or in the aggregate. Upon reviewing Bassett’s accounting, the court determined that at least one work was clearly visible for this timeframe in each of ten films at issue, taking the uses outside of the realm of a de minimis defense. The uses included, for example, “colorful geometric paintings above a couch” that appeared, “prominently and often fully, for over four minutes” onscreen, as well as “green wall hangings above [a] bed appearing throughout [a] nine-minute scene.”

In granting Bassett’s summary judgment motion on infringement, a ruling which occurred in early August, the court also denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on fair use under copyright law, which would have allowed the works’ depiction, even without Bassett’s permission. Undertaking the four-factor fair use analysis and rejecting the defendants’ arguments, the court noted that Bassett’s belongings in the film were artistic works that had not been used in a transformative way, and indeed had sometimes been featured in full.

Although the copyright prong of the lawsuit has been resolved, the court will still permit Bassett’s claims on unfair trade practices, civil conspiracy, business interference, and emotional distress, in an upcoming trial slated for the summer of 2021. The court must also determine damages owing for the copyright infringement, and to this end recently confirmed that Bassett is entitled to profits.

A key takeaway from the intellectual property portion of this dispute is the way in which copyright may serve as an unlikely remedy where unauthorized use of a physical property occurs pursuant to a lease, failing to rise to the level of actionable trespass. Should use of the property include copyright-protected works, a homeowner who owns the copyrights in those works may have recourse to recover damages, including profits, under copyright, particularly, in the context of film productions that, unwittingly or otherwise, misuse copyrighted artworks as mise en scène.

SDNY Judge Dismisses “Hustlers” Invasion of Privacy and Defamation Claims

By: Sara Gates


In an opinion rife with references to adult entertainment and drugs, a judge in the Southern District of New York recently dismissed an invasion of privacy and defamation case over a plaintiff’s apparent depiction in the 2019 film “Hustlers.”  See Barbash v. STX Financing, LLC, Case No. 1:20-cv-00123-DLC (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 10, 2020).  For the uninitiated, the film was based on a 2015 article in New York Magazine that described a scheme undertaken by a group of adult entertainment hosts and dancers at two clubs in Manhattan who allegedly drugged patrons and stole large sums of money while they were incapacitated.  The plaintiff, Samantha Barbash, along with several others were charged for their roles in the scheme, and Barbash ultimately pled guilty to conspiracy, assault, and grand larceny. 

Though Barbash herself spoke with the New York Magazine reporter, and later gave other interviews, and published a memoir on the subject, she did not consent to Jennifer Lopez’s depiction of her character in “Hustlers,” so she filed suit against the producers and distributors of the film earlier this year for invasion of privacy, under N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 50 and § 51, over the use of her identity, likeness, and character in the film and marketing materials.  She also alleged that six statements and scenes in the film, primarily regarding the preparation and possession of various drug cocktails, were defamatory. 

On the defendants’ motion to dismiss, District Judge Denise Cote considered whether New York’s statutory right to protect an individual’s “name, portrait, picture and voice” from commercial appropriation—in the absence of a common law right, which New York does not recognize—also protects an individual’s likeness and character.  Looking at the legislative intent that the statute be construed narrowly, and prior case law, the court determined that Barbash’s allegations in her amended complaint that the film’s use of her likeness and character was insufficient to support a claim under N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 50 and § 51.

Turning to the defamation claim, the court considered whether Barbash had alleged the requisite elements for such a claim, focusing on (1) whether the film was “concerning the plaintiff,” (2) whether the statements and scenes were false, and (3) whether, as the defendants argued, Barbash was a limited-purpose public figure, which would require her to allege a higher burden of fault.  For the first point, the court questioned whether the plaintiff is recognizable in the film, such that someone who knows her would be able to make her out.  Based on the allegations in the amended complaint, which the court accepted as true on the motion to dismiss, this element was satisfied. 

For the second point, the court evaluated each of the six statements, one by one, to determine whether Barbash alleged that the statements were “substantially” false, given that “substantial truth” or that the overall gist or substance of the statement is true, is the benchmark to avoid defamation liability in New York.  Five of the statements (and accompanying scenes) were drug-related, namely, alleging that the character (1) concocted, (2) manufactured, (3) possessed, (4) used, and (5) provided drugs to individuals without consent.  The sixth statement concerned the character’s personality, describing her as cold and indifferent.  As the court was able to take judicial notice of Barbash’s guilty plea, in which she pled guilty to conspiracy for providing victims with illegal drugs to gain control of their credit cards, the court determined that her provision of drugs to unconsenting victims was substantially true, and drug possession could be inferred, so these two statements could not support a defamation claim.  The court also determined that the sixth statement regarding the character’s personality was non-actionable opinion.  The court, however, could not make a determination about the other drug-related statements at this early stage in the case.

Finally, the court turned to the question of whether Barbash was a limited-purpose public figure, which would heighten the level of fault that Barbash would need to prove in order to succeed on her defamation claim.  For private persons, a plaintiff litigating a defamation claim in New York (and most other jurisdictions, for that matter), need only show that the defendant was negligent in making the alleged defamatory statement.  For celebrities and public figures, however, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant had acted with “actual malice” (i.e., knowledge that statements were false or reckless disregard as to their falsity) in making the statement.  The higher burden for public figures serves an important First Amendment purpose and provides breathing room so that people and publishers may engage in free public debate about people in the public eye, that may include some inadvertently false factual assertions without being subject to liability (and, consequently, chilling free speech).  Actual malice has also been applied in limited circumstances to private persons who become limited-purpose public figures where they voluntarily inject themselves into a public controversy or issue, seek media attention, and assume a position of prominence in relation to the particular issue.

Arguing for dismissal of the defamation claim, the defendants asserted that, based on Barbash’s criminal conduct, in which she voluntarily injected herself into the public arena, she should be treated as a limited-purpose public figure.  The court agreed, relying on Barbash’s 2015 guilty plea, her continued cooperation with the press, including for the 2015 New York Magazine article and 2019 and 2020 Vanity Fair articles after the film was released, both of which included portraits of Barbash, and her 2020 memoir on the events depicted in the film.  In opposition, Barbash argued that she should not be required to meet the higher standard because she was unwillingly dragged into the public arena, and that her later interviews were an attempt to set the record straight.  The court disagreed, noting that while Barbash is entitled to tell her side of the story, her engagement rendered her a limited-purpose public figure.  As such, Barbash would have had to plead actual malice, which she did not do in her amended complaint.  For these reasons, the court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss without resolving whether the remaining statements were legally defamatory.

The Barbash decision adds to a growing body of case law in the Southern District on the proper application of N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 50 and § 51 and the analysis of defamation claims involving films based on prior public articles or records.  Barbash confirms that New York’s right of privacy statute remains limited in scope. As to defamation, the plaintiff’s use of the media worked against her, as it provided grounds for the defendants to argue that she rose to the level of a limited-purpose public figure.  That may not be available in every case involving prior reports and guilty pleas, especially where the individual did not continue to make themselves available to the media. 

In any case involving the use of a person’s likeness and character, filmmakers, producers, and distributors should ensure that they are consulting counsel about rights and clearances, especially because other states’ right-of-publicity laws may have a broader statute or recognize common law privacy rights, and courts in other parts of the country will likely have diverse views on who constitutes a public figure for purposes of defamation. 


Copyright Office Procedures During COVID-19

By Elizabeth Altman

As COVID-19-related disruptions and social distancing measures continue across the country and throughout the summer, many public institutions are seeing continued curtailment to their operations. It can be overwhelming to parse through ever-changing, institution-specific pandemic protocols, which is why we have put together an overview of the Copyright Office’s current practices in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This guide explores the safety and efficiency measures adopted by the Copyright Office to mitigate effects from the national emergency, and explains what that means for your registrations, recordations, research, and other copyright-related concerns.

General Background

First and foremost, the Copyright Office’s physical offices remain closed, as they—along with all Library of Congress buildings—have been since March 13 of this year. The Office is actively teleworking, however, with staff and registration specialists operating remotely to continue core Copyright Office activities, such as reviewing and processing of registrations. The Copyright Office’s emergency modifications, implemented on March 31, 2020, and discussed further below, have currently been extended through September 8, 2020.

Registrations

A central function of the Copyright Office is registering copyrighted works. During the pandemic, the Office has continued to provide this service via its online registration portal, eCO. Examiners continue to review online registrations remotely, processing electronic applications in the order in which they are received (except with respect to special handling, discussed further below). The Copyright Office strongly encourages online registration, especially considering that, given today’s copyright technology and the Copyright Office’s current procedures, most works are fully registerable online.

The main COVID-19-related disruption to registration involves physical deposits and applications, which some people prefer to use, and which are required for certain categories of works and applications as discussed below. Although the Copyright Office is still accepting physical submissions, it is currently storing them in an offsite facility, regardless of whether they were submitted by USPS, courier, or delivery service. The Copyright Office will only process these submissions when the Library of Congress reopens, for which there is presently no timeline. To date, the Library of Congress has stated that all events at its buildings are cancelled until September 1 and that all facilities remain closed “until further notice.” When the Copyright Office does resume reviewing physical materials, it will do so in the order in which they were received, as submissions have been date-stamped.

The Copyright Office therefore strongly encourages applicants to take advantage of electronic filing options. To this end, the Office has expanded its electronic submissions programs, to accommodate applications that would normally require a physical deposit copy. Below is a summary of the available submission options, depending upon the deposit requirements for the type of work:

a) Registration Where No Physical Deposit is Required:

For applicants not required to submit a physical deposit copy of the work, the Office strongly encourages uploading one electronic copy of the work after completing the electronic application and paying the required fee. No other declaration form or special procedure is required.

b) Registration Where Physical Deposit is Required:

Physical deposit copies are required for certain kinds of work, including vessel designs and mask works. They are also required when:

  • A work was first published in the U.S. before the applicant submitted an application claim to the Copyright Office, and the work was published in physical form, like a CD, DVD, or paperback book;
  • A work was first published in the U.S. before the applicant submitted an application claim, and the work was published both in a physical and an electronic form (like a song released on CD and as a download); or
  • A work was first published abroad before the applicant submitted an application claim to the Copyright Office, and the work was first published in a physical format like CD, DVD, or paperback book.

Applicants that must submit a physical deposit copy should mail it to the Copyright Office, including the shipping slip, which provides the mailing address. Although the physical deposit will not be processed until the Office returns to normal operations, applicants who also follow the Office’s special pandemic procedures—as outlined below—will receive remote examination of the electronic application: 

  1. Complete an electronic application and submit the filing fee through the online registration system.
  2. Upload an electronic copy of the work that is identical to the physical copy.
  3. Print the shipping slip generated by the eCO system and attach it to the physical deposit copy of the work that is mailed to the Copyright Office.
  4. Complete and upload a Deposit Ticket Declaration Form certifying that the physical deposit and electronic copy contain identical content.
  • Include the title of the work, which the registration specialist will use to confirm that the information in the declaration matches that in the application.
  • Sign the declaration; typed signatures suffice.
  • You need not notarize the form or have a witness.

The Copyright Office advises that where an applicant has filed an application electronically but has only submitted a physical deposit, the examiner assigned to the claim may send an email with the option of uploading an electronic copy of the work and the Deposit Form, where the option is available. Emails send from cop-ad@loc.gov. However, applicants taking note of the Copyright Office’s building closures and hold on inspections of physical material are advised to proceed with this process from the start.

Where applicants follow this procedure, the effective date of registration will be the date the Copyright Office receives the completed application, fee, and deposit in its proper form, regardless of whether the physical or electronic version first reaches the Office. Claims submitted in this manner should be examined within 30 days after the Office receives the electronic copy, although the Copyright Office generally advises that the average time to process a registration is presently 3.2 months.

The Copyright Office directs that applicants that have only submitted a paper application should not resubmit an online application; in such cases, the Copyright Office will examine the application when the building reopens and staff returns.

c) Where Applicants are Unable to Submit an Application, Fee, and/or Deposit During COVID-19

Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed on March 27, 2020, the Register of Copyrights has the temporary authority to extend certain filing deadlines and procedural requirements if she determines that a national emergency is disrupting Copyright Office practices. The Register quickly used this authority to establish a procedure to extend the window for registrations under Section 710 of the Copyright Act, which authorizes her, on a temporary basis and subject to certain exceptions, to “toll, waive, adjust, or modify any timing provision . . . or procedural provision” in the Copyright Act if she determines that a national emergency declared by the President “generally disrupts or suspends the ordinary functioning of the copyright system . . . or any component thereof.” Considering the difficulties of prompt registration, which is generally required in order to ensure the availability of statutory damages and attorney’s fees should an infringement dispute proceed to litigation (these legal remedies are only available for works registered before infringement or, if after infringement, within three months after first publication), the Office is now allowing applicants to toll the registration window based on fulfillment of certain conditions:

  • Applicants who are unable to submit an application, fee, and/or required physical deposit copy should fill in and upload a Section 710 Declaration online (the form applies to applicants who declare that due to the pandemic they either could not submit an application fee, and/or deposit copy or could not submit a required physical deposit copy though they did submit an online application and fee; it also contains a section for the applicant’s statement supporting the declaration, and an acknowledgement of the penalties associated with making a false representation in an application for copyright registration). When possible, applicants should proceed to complete an electronic application, submit a filing fee, print a shipping slip, and mail the required deposit with the shipping slip to the address on the slip. Applicants must mail these materials within 30 days after the date that the COVID-19 disruption has ended, as announced by the Register of Copyrights.
  • Applicants that are prevented from submitting a paper or electronic application, fee, and/or required deposit may do so after the end of the national emergency, provided that they include a Section 710 Declaration with their application materials.

Section 710 Declarations must be signed—either handwritten or typed signatures suffice—and include satisfactory evidence to support the claim that the pandemic prevented the applicant from submitting required materials. The following would be suitable justifications:

  • A statement that you are/were subject to a governmental stay-at-home order.
  • A statement that you are/were unable to access required physical materials due to a business closure at the site of the materials’ storage.
  • A statement that you were unable to access the internet.

Certificates of Registration

The Copyright Office has ceased printing certificates of registrations at present. If, however, your claim has been registered, it will appear in the Office’s online catalog. You may retrieve the registration number by searching using the title, author, or claimant name. For registrations processed through Special Handling, the Office will email an unofficial copy of the registration certification that includes the registration number. If the Copyright Office refuses your claim, it will email you a copy of the refusal letter.

Special Handling

The Copyright Office’s “special handling” procedure allows applicants to expedite the registration process for an additional fee. Presently, the Copyright Office will only receive and process requests for special handling that are submitted online.

The following steps ensure special handling:

  1. Submit an electronic application completing the special handling screen.
  2. Pay the filing fee and additional special handling fee.
  3. Upload an electronic copy of your work.

If the application would ordinarily require a physical deposit, you may use the Deposit Ticket Declaration Form option to qualify for special handling.

After you complete these steps, the Office will typically examine your claim, or contact you with questions within five business days. If, however, you submit physical copies or a paper application, the Copyright Office will neither examine your materials nor implement special handling until the Library of Congress reopens. As of May 2020, the Office now also permits applicants to submit requests for special handling of document recordation submissions, including notices of termination, by email.

Requests for Reconsideration of Registration Refusal

Requests for reconsideration are typically filed by mail, but as an alternative during the pandemic, the Copyright Office will allow you to submit your request to copreviewboard@copyright.gov. After receiving your request, the Copyright Office will contact you with instructions to pay the required filing fee electronically. The request and fee must be received by the Office within three months from your refusal date.

Requesting Cancellation of Registration

To seek a voluntary cancellation of a registration, as the author or claimant of record, you may submit your request to copreviewboard@copyright.gov. A staff member will contact you about submitting the required fee.

Research & Updates

a) Library of Congress

As noted, all Library of Congress buildings and facilities have been closed to the public, including researchers and those with reader identification cards, which are required to access the Library’s research areas, including Computer Catalog centers and Copyright Office public service areas. Access to the Library of Congress is currently limited to a small number of necessary persons, although the Library notes that, as of June 22, 2020 it will implement “Phase One, Part One” of its plan to gradually restore on-site operations. This plan involves recalling around 200 staff members—approximately 5% of all staff—to onsite operations. Neither the Library of Congress nor the Copyright Office have provided a timeline for how long Phase One will last, when “Phase One, Part Two” is likely to commence, nor a prospective implementation date for Phase Two. The duration of each phase will be determined based on local conditions and the Library’s operations at each stage. All public events at the Library of Congress have been cancelled through September 1, 2020.

The public may still access Library of Congress resources at:

Copyright Office

Copyright.gov remains, of course, the main starting point for keeping up to date on copyright matters. To stay current with Copyright Office COVID-19 news, in particular, visit https://www.copyright.gov/coronavirus/. The Office’s Coronavirus FAQ, which outlines specific questions regarding registration and deposit copies, may also be of use. Subscribe to updates regarding COVID-19, as well as other copyright matters, at the Office’s NewsNet service: https://www.copyright.gov/subscribe/. Finally, the Copyright Office’s up-to-date filing options are available in chart form at https://www.copyright.gov/coronavirus/filing-options/.

We will update this post from time to time with further developments.

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. 

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/

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