Litigation

Copyright Preempts Right of Publicity: SDNY rules against “Stuttering John” favoring copyright over publicity rights in Melendez v. Sirius XM Radio

By Nancy Wolff and Olivia Rose

In a clash between a radio personality’s right of publicity claim and a satellite radio’s copyright claim, the Southern District of New York recently dismissed John Melendez’s complaint against Sirius XM Radio alleging violation of California statutory and common law rights of publicity, holding that the promotion and rebroadcasting of his radio shows was preempted by federal copyright law. This case is a win for content owners who face claims by personalities trying to make an end run around improbable copyright claims and instead assert rights of publicity claims for use of their “attributes.”

Plaintiff Melendez is popularly known for his humorous “Stuttering John” radio interviews that aired for 16 years on the Howard Stern Show beginning in 1988 where he asked politicians, celebrities, and athletes outrageous questions. In 2004, Melendez left the show to become the announcer for Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show. Two years later, Howard Stern signed a deal with Sirius XM to move his show from terrestrial radio to the subscription-based satellite radio service. As a part of the deal, Sirius acquired a license to air current episodes of the show and to air full or partial episodes from the Howard Stern Show archives that feature Melendez as Stuttering John. According to the complaint, Melendez alleged that Sirius continuously aired old shows featuring Melendez and used his likeness to promote Sirius radio. Melendez sued in the Southern District of New York claiming Sirius violated his California statutory and common law rights of publicity.

The court dismissed the complaint with prejudice, finding that Melendez was attempting to prevent the airing of radio broadcasts, works that could be subject to copyright and that are governed by federal copyright law. The federal preemption provision, 17 U.S.C. § 301(a) establishes a two-pronged test to be applied in preemption cases. Under this test, states are precluded from enforcing penalties for state law violations if the intellectual property at issue falls within the “subject matter of copyright” as defined by federal law and if the claimed property rights are “equivalent to” the exclusive rights provided by federal copyright law. 

Under the first prong, courts look at whether the subject matter at issue (here, sound recordings) pertain to subject matter covered by copyright. Even though the recordings of Melendez were not copyrighted (and may not even have been eligible for copyright protection), this did not preclude preemption because it was sufficient that the claim was subject to the possibility of statutory preemption.  In short, Sirius did not actually need to be a copyright holder to prevail.

In addressing Melendez’s right of publicity claim, the court looked at whether his claim aimed to vindicate the misuse of Melendez’s likeness by implying a false endorsement or to exploit a work that could be subject to copyright protection, or if Melendez was attempting to control the dissemination of the work under copyright.  Since Sirius was using the recordings to advertise the Howard Stern episodes featuring Melendez, and not Sirius itself, the court rejected Melendez’s argument of implied endorsement under California right of publicity.  Melendez failed to plead any plausible facts that suggest Sirius’ intended audience could reasonably construe the advertisements as an endorsement of Sirius. The court noted that the only commercial advantage Sirius gains from playing the old clips of Melendez flows from the sound recordings themselves, not from Melendez’s identity.

Under the second prong of the copyright preemption test, the court must decide if the claimed property rights are “equivalent to” the exclusive rights provided by federal copyright law.  In order to decide this factor, the court’s analysis focuses on whether the nature of the state law action is qualitatively different from a copyright infringement claim.

The court held that Melendez’s claims are not qualitatively different from copyright infringement claims because they are effectively claims for wrongful rebroadcasting of copyrightable sound recordings. Additionally, Melendez’s request for the court to permanently enjoin Sirius from “continuing the improper acts” made it clear to the court that Melendez was attempting to control the broadcasting of sound recordings—a right that is exclusive to the copyright holder—under the guise of protecting his right of publicity. As a result, the court dismissed the complaint with prejudice, ending Stuttering Johns’ action against Sirius from the onset.

This case is consistent with other court decisions refusing to enjoin the sale or distribution of a product based on state right of publicity laws where the product itself is a work subject to copyright (such as a photograph) and the celebrity’s attributes are not being used to endorse or sell a different commercial product, protecting the copyright holder of the works from questionable publicity claims.

Legal Drama over Docudramas: New York Appeals Court Rules in Favor of Film Producer in Porco v. Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC

By Scott J. Sholder and Leah Scholnick

On June 24, a New York appeals court ruled in favor of docudrama makers in Porco v. Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC,clarifying when filmmakers and producers who make unauthorized use of an individual’s name or likeness are shielded from liability under New York’s statutory right of publicity. The decision is a victory for First Amendment advocates and the media and entertainment industries in general, more clearly delineating the freedoms afforded to creators of docudramas when conveying important matters of public interest. Prior right of publicity cases in New York have not directly addressed the genre of docudramas and this case harmonizes New York law with other jurisdictions, most notably California.

Plaintiff Christopher Porco, who was convicted of brutally murdering his father and attempting to murder his mother, sued Lifetime over the docudrama entitled Romeo Killer: The Chris Porco Story, which depicted the events surrounding the murder in a semi-fictionalized manner. Porco alleged that Lifetime made a commercial, nonconsensual use of his name and likeness and that the docudrama was highly inaccurate, violating New York’s statutory right of publicity found in Civil Rights Law Sections 50 and 51. Lifetime argued that there was no such violation because the film used Porco’s name and likeness in reasonable relation to newsworthy events, invoking the “newsworthiness” exception. The trial court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgement, holding that there were issues of fact relating to whether the film was so materially and substantially fictitious that it no longer served the goal of conveying newsworthy information.

On appeal, a panel of the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department explained that to prevail on his claim, Porco needed to demonstrate that Lifetime knowingly fictionalized incidents and made a substantially fictitious biography solely to trade on Porco’s persona. The court’s analysis delved into the history and interpretation of New York’s statutory right of publicity, which was enacted over a century ago to provide limited civil and criminal liability for the nonconsensual, commercial use of a living person’s name or likeness for advertising or trade purposes. New York courts have long recognized that this narrow right must be balanced against First Amendment guarantees of free speech, and as such, have carved out an exception for newsworthy events and matters of public of interest, even if the ultimate use is for profit. According to the court, many diverse forms of expression—even those created mainly for entertainment purposes—can be considered newsworthy because they provide audiences with access to information about various subjects of public interest.

However, the exception does not apply when biographical information is so fictionalized that it no longer serves the goal of providing that information to the public. Where to draw the line was the key question at issue in Porco, and is one that is relevant to all docudramas, a genre rooted in presenting historical events in an entertaining manner that risks misleading viewers as to the complete accuracy of the events. Porco’s sensational, newsworthy crime made it a likely candidate for a true crime docudrama, which Lifetime did not need Porco’s permission to create as long as the filmmakers did not create a fictionalization of the events that would no longer serve the goals of the newsworthiness exception.

Porco argued that Lifetime’s film was fictionalized to the point of being an “invented biography” that no longer fit within the scope of the newsworthiness exception. The court reviewed case law in which the newsworthiness exception did not apply, including where a writer was held liable for an unauthorized biography of a baseball player that included so much “material and substantial falsification” that it no longer served the purpose of providing access to information of public interest, and where a filmmaker was held liable for a “fanciful” dramatization of the true story of a “daring sea rescue” that would have had newsworthy value had it bore any relation to the actual event.

The court ultimately found Porco’s case distinguishable from these precedents. After the court reviewed the film, a timed dialogue script, media interviews, and transcripts from Porco’s real-life criminal trial, it concluded that the film satisfied the newsworthiness exception. Despite the dramatization of certain elements in the film—such as recreation of dialogue, use of flashbacks and staged interviews, and use of fictional names and composite characters—the film constituted a “broadly accurate depiction of the crime.” Additionally, the court emphasized the critical fact that Lifetime acknowledged and informed viewers, both in the beginning and at the end of the film, that the events were dramatized and “based on” a true story. This disclaimer, the court held, was necessary to prevent viewers from believing that the film’s depiction of Porco was entirely true.

In sum, the court held the newsworthiness exception applied even to highly dramatized works as long as the work does not mislead viewers into believing that embellished depictions of individuals or events are entirely true. For these reasons, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s denial of Lifetime’s summary judgement motion because Porco failed to raise an issue of material fact as to whether the film amounted to a fictitious biography that defeated the goal of conveying information about a matter of public interest.

As a point of comparison, the 2018 California case de Havilland v. FX Networks, LLC similarly addressed the unauthorized use one’s persona, specifically the name and likeness of actress Olivia De Havilland in a docudrama series entitled Feud: Bette and Joan. The California Court of Appeals, in also ruling in favor of the defendant, focused more on the importance of First Amendment protections of docudramas measured not necessarily by their newsworthiness, but by whether they are merely advertisements for the sale of goods or services, whether the depictions of the plaintiff were transformative, and whether the work primarily derives its value from those depictions. While their rationales differed, both the de Havilland and Porco decisions resulted in broader freedoms for producers and filmmakers of docudramas to rely on the First Amendment—framed by court-articulated guideposts—as a shield for their creative works. Both discussions complement each other and provide a broader understanding of increasing protections for hybrid fictional/factual works in the entertainment and media epicenters of the country.

In light of the Porco ruling, New York creators of docudramas may use an individual’s name and likeness as long as the overall work remains generally accurate and any dramatizations and fictionalizations are made clear to the audience through the use of disclaimers and other disclosures that the work, while based on true events, is not meant as a purely factual depiction of history.

Congress Passes CASE Act Ushering in Crucial Copyright Reform

By Nancy E. Wolff and Elizabeth Altman

On December 21, 2020, Congress passed the long-awaited Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2019 (the “CASE Act”), as part of its omnibus spending and COVID-19 relief bill, H.R. 133. The law was enacted on December 27, 2020 and is poised to reform copyright litigation in the United States in the coming year, creating a centralized, voluntary, and affordable venue to bring claims of lesser value, without the need for attorneys or personal appearances. The Copyright Office has one year to implement the CASE Act, with an ability to extend the enactment for up to 180 days, if necessary.

Background

The CASE Act has been many years in the making, and is largely the result of prior recommendations by the Copyright Office, particularly its 2013 Copyright Small Claims Report, and the support of many creator groups. Recognizing the significant barriers of entry creators faced when attempting to bring small-value copyright claims in the federal court system—considering the substantial costs and time associated with litigation—the Office recommended establishing and housing an alternative, voluntary adjudicatory system. Honing and, now, codifying this recommendation with the CASE Act, Congress provides a solution for the many individual creators who wish to assert their rights but lack the financial wherewithal or high-value claim to make pursuing a federal case worthwhile.

Copyright Claims Board

Central to the Act is the creation of a centralized tribunal within the Copyright Office called the Copyright Claims Board (“CCB”). Presided over by qualified copyright attorneys, it will serve as a venue for claimants to bring copyright claims of lesser value, expanding upon the federal court systems’ otherwise exclusive jurisdiction for copyright infringement claims. Claimants may use the CCB to seek rulings on infringement, declarations of noninfringement, and to bring certain DMCA claims, such as claims that a party knowingly sent false takedown notices.

A. Process & Procedures

The copyright attorneys heading the CCB, called “Copyright Claims Officers,” will be experienced in copyright infringement, litigation, and alternative dispute resolution, and appointed by the Librarian of Congress for renewable terms. As copyright claims come in—brought by claimants who file a certified statement of material facts and submit the requisite filing fee—the Officers will review them for compliance with the Act. The filing fee is still unknown, but it will be at least $100 and no more than $400. Claims must be served upon the opposing party in accordance with the Act. Since the tribunal is voluntary, parties against whom an action is brought before the CCB will also have a 60-day “opt out” period after receiving notice of the claim, requiring the claimant to bring its claim in federal court (or abandon it). Libraries and archives who qualify under Section 108 of the Copyright Act will also have the opportunity to preemptively opt out, by filing a notice with the Copyright Office.

During the hearing, the Officers will consider the evidence and arguments both parties present. The CCB will make certain formalities optional, such as representation by counsel and personal appearances; likewise, the CCB will provide a process for only limited discovery. Law students will be permitted to represent parties.

Creators must register their work with the Copyright Office before the CCB will hear the infringement claim. To facilitate the process, the Register of Copyrights shall establish regulations allowing the Copyright Office to make expedited registration decisions for any unregistered works appearing before the CCB. As in the federal courts, when a rightsholder has registered will also affect how much he or she can recover, although unlike claims brought in federal courts, owners of unregistered works at the time of the infringement can still obtain half the level of the capped statutory damages provided for by the CASE Act.

Where the CCB rules in favor of the copyright holder, a defendant may be required to remove infringing content and/or pay statutory or actual damages. Parties that wish to challenge a CCB decision will have the opportunity, though, first by seeking CCB reconsideration, and, if denied, by requesting the Register of Copyrights to review the ruling for abuse of discretion. If, in turn, the Register does not provide the requested relief, a party may seek an order from a federal court vacating or modifying the CCB’s decision where the CCB ruling was fraudulent, or where the CCB engaged in misconduct, exceeded its authority, failed to render a final determination, or made a default determination or determination based on a failure to prosecute due to excusable neglect.

B. Damages

True to the Act’s name, eligible claims that go before the CCB should be small, with damage awards capped at $15,000 per claim, with a case maximum of $30,000 (with claims for untimely registered works capped at $7,500). The Act envisions an even more streamlined process for claims seeking damages of $5,000 or less. As in federal court, the CCB will consider various factors in determining damages, such as the length of time the work was infringed, profits, lost income, and any steps the infringer or claimant may have taken to mitigate the infringement.

The Benefits of Electing to Bring A Claim Under the CASE Act

First and foremost, the Act will afford those in the creative community with more channels to protect their works and assert their rights, by allowing photographers, songwriters, authors, and other rightsholders to pursue infringers outside of the bureaucratic, often complicated, and expensive federal court system. Considering that lawsuits often last years and incur costs that soar into the six-figures, many creators would otherwise abandon valid small claims, risk their livelihoods to pursue them, or rely on questionable contingency fee lawyers, labeled “copyright trolls” by the federal courts, for their practice of aggregating unsustainable numbers of low-value claims—often related to single unlicensed uses of photography—for which they seek unrealistic maximum statutory damages. The Act will allow creators to bypass this melee by bringing their small-value claims in a straightforward manner directly before the CCB. This low-cost, streamlined tribunal could be an attractive forum for publishers and other businesses to efficiently resolve lower value claims, where the cost of defense can far exceed the value of the claim. The opportunity to resolve a claim, without the necessity of lawyers, can also benefit all parties by encouraging reasonable settlements. While this forum may not attract those that have turned to litigation as a business model to leverage the high costs of federal litigation, creators that are simply looking for fair compensation may welcome the opportunity to resolve disputes without the need to engage a lawyer and pay hefty contingency fees.

Overall, the Act presents an opportunity to rebalance a copyright regime that has, in recent years, provided insufficient redress for individual creators with legitimate, but small, claims, and which has, in the process, disincentivized them from putting forth new works of art that they believe they cannot protect. Instead, the Act levels the playing field, making valid copyright protection available to all strata of creators, and reinstituting confidence in copyright. The Act will also likely foster more robust licensing, decreasing the threat of rampant and unchecked small-value infringement that discourages this type of investment.

Addressing Concerns

In an effort to ward off misuse and address concerns over the new system, the Act includes numerous safeguards. With damages capped at $30,000, creators cannot bring claims for large groups of infringements.  Further, CCB officers may dismiss claims without prejudice that are not suited for this forum and may even dismiss claims filed for a “harassing or improper purpose.” Generally, damages do not include attorney’s fees and costs, except that in the event of cases brought for harassing purposes, the CCB may award up to $5,000 for respondents’ attorney’s fees and costs, and in the case of “extraordinary circumstances” of bad faith conduct, the CCB may increase this amount. Sanctions are also available against a party who uses the CCB to bring a frivolous or abusive claim. Further, repeat offenders may be barred from bringing claims before the CCB for up to a year. Copyright Claims Officers are themselves subject to sanction or removal by the Librarian of Congress for misconduct.

One of the primary concerns amongst critics is that providing an avenue for small copyright claims will actually drive up the overall number of claims, harming online creators behind generally insignificant content that has become a staple of Internet culture, such as memes, videos, etc. This outcome is unlikely, however, considering that CCB officers are tasked with evaluating claims for validity and must consider standard procedural defenses, affirmative defenses such as fair use, and other considerations like platform-type, audience size, and the purpose of the use. As in federal court, statutory damages are within the CCB’s discretion and the $7,500 or $15,000 maximum fee is an outer limit, meaning that awards could be less. What’s more, this amount is still far less than the $150,000 maximum statutory damages per infringed work for willful infringements often invoked in federal court—even where completely unrealistic and only meant to drive defendants to a higher negotiated settlement. As a model, the United Kingdom has had a similar copyright small claims court since 2012, which has often worked to curb the bringing of claims, as would-be infringers are aware that creators have a real recourse to pursuing a small-value payment that may be higher than a mere license fee, and so pay for the work they use at the outset.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Act is one of the rare pieces of litigation with bipartisan support among Congress, as well as many leading institutions, including the Authors Guild, Songwriters Guild of America, the Copyright Alliance, and many visual arts associations, who have supported it in order to give creators a streamlined, cost-effective way to enforce their rights.

Over the next year, the Copyright Office will be setting up procedures to implement the Act. We will continue to update you on further CASE Act developments, and we also recommend the Copyright Office’s NewsNet bulletin updates for further updates. Once implemented, we will know how well this voluntary tribunal is embraced by both the creative and media community.

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. 

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