MediaTech Law


The Weird World of Open Source Software Licenses

I like to think that somewhere in America, at this very moment, a college kid has just agreed without reservation to accept five bucks from his friend to drink an entire bottle of hot sauce. Non-lawyers are often surprised to learn that, public policy concerns aside, such an agreement contains all the elements necessary to create a legally binding contract: Offer, acceptance and consideration.

Part of a lawyer’s job is to identify relevant legal issues lurking beneath factual scenarios. Issue spotting can be frustratingly difficult, however, because, as the absurd hot sauce agreement illustrates, the law is often counterintuitive. Counter-intuitions abound in the weird world of open source license agreements. License agreements have become commonplace in our tech-saturated lives. If you’re not sure what they are, jog your memory to the last time you downloaded an app for your laptop or smartphone. Remember being asked to read and agree to an endless list of terms and conditions? That contract that you “read” and agreed to was almost certainly an end user license agreement to use the app for a specific purpose.

Over the past twenty years or so, several copyright licensing movements have gained traction. In general, these new types of licenses challenge traditional notions of copyright protection by granting licensees the right to modify the original copyrighted material for future use free of charge so long as certain promises are kept and/or conditions are met.

One well-known movement is the Open Source Initiative, which reviews and approves open source software (OSS) licenses. OSS licenses typically provide licensees with the right to access the source code of the original software program (hence “open” source) and create new software programs subject to the terms of the license.

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New DMCA Agent Registration Requirements: Action Required by all Online Service Providers

Providers of online services (including websites and apps that enable users to post content) must register an agent with the United States Copyright Office by December 31, 2017 using the Office’s new online system, which went into effect in December 2016. Those who don’t register risk losing valuable liability protections under Section 512 of the Digital Millennial Copyright Act (DMCA). Service providers can click here to begin the registration process and the Copyright Office has created a number of videos to guide users.

Service providers with agent information on file under the old, paper system must re-submit the information through the online portal. The agent information must be updated as it changes and the registration must be renewed or updated at least once every three years. There also is a new fee structure: $6 registration fee per designation of an agent.

As background, Section 512 of the DMCA provides a safe harbor from copyright infringement liability to online service providers, primarily to protect online services from situations involving copyright infringement arising from content posted by third party users. In order to qualify, a service provider must designate an agent to receive take-down notices from copyright holders who believe their rights have been infringed. In addition to posting the agent information online, the service provider is required to provide its agent’s information to the Copyright Office. Previously, agent information was provided to the Copyright Office on a paper form that was later scanned and posted online by the staff, but concerns arose regarding cost and whether this information was being properly updated.

While the Copyright Office reported that comments it received during the rulemaking proceeding demonstrated “widespread support for the creation of an electronic registration system,” that is only part of the story.

There are many benefits to the Copyright Office’s new online system (and some of the changes may be long overdue). As noted by Brandon Huffman, filing online will generally be easier and cheaper. However, some have criticized the new rules because of requirements that: (i) all service providers who previously registered through the paper system re-register via the new online system and (ii) all registrations must be renewed every three years (unless they were updated during that three-year period). A currently compliant service provider that does nothing risks losing its existing safe harbor protections.   So, for example, Elliot Harmon of the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that large online service providers, such as YouTube and Facebook, will not have a problem complying, but “small companies, small nonprofits, and activist groups” with few resources are more likely to be at risk of losing their safe labor protections for non-compliance. Eric Goldman has been particularly critical of these requirements, going so far as to write that “This story has been like watching a train wreck in slow motion.” Professor Goldman suggests that the Copyright Office’s efforts to inform service providers about lapsed registrations could inadvertently help litigious copyright owners:

To ‘help’ service providers, the Copyright Office says they can reinstate lapsed registrations by paying the fee. But the Copyright Office will publicly display the periods when the registration lapsed, giving a useful roadmap to copyright owners who can easily just sue for the lapsed time period. So the public disclosure of the lapsed period will make a super ‘SUE HERE’ flag for litigious copyright owners, helpfully provided as a public “service” by the Copyright Office.

In the end, all online service providers need to take notice – and action.

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Copyright, Fair Use, and the Kissing Picture: Storms v. New England Sports Network, Inc.

Recently, a photojournalist, Michael Storms, filed an intriguing lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against a website that published photographs taken by Mr. Storm without his permission and without paying Mr. Storms a licensing fee. The photos were of New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey kissing Victoria Secret model Adriana Lima at a restaurant in Miami, not long after Ms. Lima broke up with New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman. The pictures were posted on the website of the New England Sports Network (NESN). (The case is Storms v. New England Sports Network, Inc.)

On its face, the complaint is relatively short and generic, but it will be interesting to see the defendant’s reply, whether the network argues that its use of the photos constitutes permissible “fair use,” and the potential effect of the court’s decision on copyright law as a whole.

Under the U.S. Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 et seq., the “fair use of a copyrighted work, including . . . for purposes such as . . . news reporting . . . is not an infringement of copyright.” While there is no strict formula for how a court determines “fair use”, the Copyright Act (17 U.S. Code § 107) requires consideration of 4 factors:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
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Did the Richard Prince Fair Use Case Just Swallow Copyright Law? Add Some Blue to the Other Guy’s Photo, Call it Fair Use – Really?

Fair use update: I wrote last year about the fair use case in New York involving photographer Richard Prince, where a federal district court rejected Prince’s claim of fair use of photographer Patrick Cariou’s photos of Rastafarians.

Prince appealed his defeat and late last month won a reversal from the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York.  The case may not be all that useful guidance for would-be artists on the limits of fair use – more on this below – but more of a legal scrum over what is (or is not) a “transformative” use of a previously copyrighted artwork.  Or more particularly, how much a court should get involved in evaluating whether a later user’s re-use of an earlier artist’s work is “transformative” at all.

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Copyright from Beyond the Grave: William Faulkner Sues … Woody Allen?

How can Woody Allen infringe the copyright of William Faulkner, who has been dead since 1962?  Wouldn’t Faulkner’s works be in the public domain?  Turns out … no, and the case illustrates many aspects of copyright law basics.  Whether or not Allen’s 2011 film, Midnight in Paris, actually infringed Faulkner’s copyright.

Copyright has expired for all works published in the United States before 1923.  1923 is significant because in 1998, 75 years after 1923, Congress amended the Copyright Act (the “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act“) such that no new works would fall into the public domain until 2019.  In 2019, public domain for works published in 1923 would kick in, with 1924 next, then 1925 and so on.  In other words, as to all works from 1923 and later that had not already fallen in the public domain by 1998, copyrights were extended until at least 2019. 

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E-SIGN and Copyright: Uploading Photos to Website Equals Consent (and Copyright Assignment)

Does use of a website constitute implicit consent to the site’s Terms of Use (TOU)?  And if the TOU provides for copyright assignment, does that use thus constitute a valid assignment of copyright under the federal Copyright Act?  Those were the questions last August before the US District Court for the District of Maryland, which granted the real estate multiple-listing service known as “Metropolitan Regional Information Systems” (MRIS) a preliminary injunction against defendant American Home Reality Network (AHRN).  The court’s opinion can be found here.  The case was discussed in some detail by RIS Media, a real estate technology blog, particularly the role of electronic signatures under the federal E-SIGN Act for valid assignments under the Copyright Act.

The court enjoined AHRN from copying and uploading MRIS’ photographs to AHRN’s website  Pamela Chestek, in her blog “Property, intangible”, points out that although the preliminary injunction was granted solely on the claim of infringement of photos in the MRIS database, MRIS had alleged infringement on its entire database. 

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Copyright of “Public Facts”: Craigslist v. PadMapper (updated)

Craigslist was meant for the common good, or as founder Craig Newmark puts it, “doing well by doing good”.  At least, that has been its announced mission since it began as an email distribution among friends. Craigslist kept its mantra through its rise to Silicon Valley stardom, snubbing multi-million dollar buyout offers and fighting attempts to monetize the site along the way.

The physical layout of Craigslist hasn’t changed much over the years. Point your browser in its direction and, like an old friend, you’ll be greeted with the same underlined blue links you’ve known for years. Fans are legion, but so too are critics: Critics see stagnation in this comfort, some of whom have taken matters into their own hands through attempts at innovation. However, as some have already discovered, developing tools to work around (critics would say “enhance”) Craigslist’s simple functionality can invite legal response. Is an early darling of Silicon Valley showing a decidedly uglier side, or is Craigslist still simply looking out for the common good?

This past July, Craigslist filed a lawsuit in the US District Court, Northern District of California, alleging that apartment-hunting site PadMapper and its data exchange partner, 3Taps, unlawfully repurpose Craigslist postings and therefore undermine “the integrity of local Craigslist communities, ultimately harming both Craigslist and its users.”  While the complaint parallels Craigslist’s “common good” business model, 3Taps CEO Greg Kidd sees it differently. “We believe Craigslist is acting like a copyright troll,” Kidd recently told AllThingsD.  Kidd’s company provides PadMapper an API for data about Craigslist postings that 3Taps gathers via means it claims are not subject to Craigslist’s Terms of Use and that likewise do not violate Craigslist’s copyrights.

This isn’t the first time Craigslist has claimed such violations, including several now-shuttered earlier services built on top of Craigslist’s platform. In July 2010, Newmark took to Q&A site Quora to defend his company’s actions in a case similar to Padmapper’s, saying he did not take issue with sites that do not affect Craigslist’s servers. “Actually, we take issue with only services which consume a lot of bandwidth, it’s that simple,” Newmark wrote.

June 22: Craigslist sends Padmapper a cease and desist letter and blocks PadMapper from pulling CL ads (at least from doing so directly).  According to CL’s complaint (filed July 20th), traffic to Padmapper immediately plummeted.  

PadMapper claims not to siphon off Craigslist’s servers. Through its partnership with 3Taps, PadMapper accesses a database of Craigslist listings found and organized from search engines including Google and Bing.

 July 9: Padmapper re-launches using 3Taps data.

July 20: Craigslist sues 3Taps and Padmapper.  CL claims:

  • Copyright infringement (for the CL site and for CL listings)
  • Contributory copyright infringement (against 3Taps)
  • Breach of contract (TOS)
  • Trademark infringement
  • Trademark dilution
  • Unfair trade practices

Perhaps that’s why Craigslist is now requiring users to “expressly grant and assign to Craigslist all rights” to enforce the copyright. Other sites like Yelp! and Facebook only require a non-exclusive license to their users’ content. But even if courts interpret this as a legally binding transfer of copyright to Craigslist, facts, like those in classified listings, often cannot be copyrighted. Therefore, it is possible that details such as an apartment’s price, address and number of bedrooms will not be protected.

This is of course Greg Kidd’s argument. “No Terms of Use can ride roughshod over the fact that there is no copyright in facts,” Kidd says. “Padmapper’s use of exchange posting is not infringing use. It is fair use or free use … of public facts.” According to Kidd, PadMapper could just be the beginning to what could be, “a whole class of use case conflicts if this stands.” Via this interpretation, as Kidd sees it, “a [Craigslist] posting retweeted via Twitter is going to be just as problematic as one through PadMapper.”

This argument inelegantly ignores 2 obstacles under contract and copyright.


First contract law, by virtue of the binding nature of Craiglist’s TOU as a contract.  So, as Craigslist notes in its complaint:

[3Taps and Padmapper] regularly accessed the CL website and affirmatively accepted and agreed to the [TOU] to, among other things, test, design, and/or use the software that allows Defendants to provide their services.  Likewise … Defendants regularly accessed the CL website with knowledge of the [TOU] and its prohibitions against copying, aggregating, displaying, distributing, performing and derivative use of the CL website and any content posted on the CL website … and regularly access the CL website and copied, aggregated, displayed, distributed, and made derivative use of the CL website and the content posted therein.

3Taps disagrees: 3Taps cannot be bound by Craigslist’s TOU, since 3Taps never touches Craigslist’s servers to obtain the data it provides via its API.  Says Kidd:

The [CL] data in question is indexed by public search engines and is made available in the public domain.  One does not have to belong to or even go to Craigslist to find this information on the description, price, and time of availability of a posting. The information is freely available in the public domain and is a fundamental component of transparency of supply and demand and price discovery that are the foundation of free markets.

Craigslist then says that 3Taps’ argument about not directly accessing data from Craigslist is absurd:

3Taps copies all of craigslist’s content – including time stamps and unique craigslist user ID numbers – and makes it available to third parties for use in competing websites or, for whatever other purpose they wish. On information and belief, 3Taps is obtaining this content by improperly accessing craigslist’s website and “scraping” content.

Copyright – Facts and Facts

Kidd’s “public domain” argument – challenging Craigslist’s private ownership of public “facts” – has its own problems.  That’s because there are public facts and … there are public facts. For starters, what makes an apartment listing a public fact? Arguably, an apartment listing is a private piece of information uniquely created and formatted by a landlord and Craigslist: How listed, what information is listed, what pricing, etc.  Perhaps not the most highly creative of copyright subject matters protected by “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” US Copyright Act (Title 17 US Code), but nonetheless protected by copyright.

No, Craigslist may not be able to protect names and addresses, but it may be able to protect Craigslist’s particular presentation of those names and addresses.  And Craigslist makes this very point in its complaint, claiming that 3Taps “displays craigslist’s copyrighted content in virtually identical visual fashion to the manner in which they appear on craigslist.”

August 1: After filing its July suit, Craigslist amends its TOU, telling users they were not permitted to cross-post their sales items anywhere else on the internet:

Clicking ‘continue’ confirms that Craigslist is the exclusive licensee of this content, with the exclusive right to enforce copyrights against anyone copying, republishing, distributing, or preparing derivative works without its consent.

August 5: Craigslist instructs all general search engines to stop indexing CL postings.

August 9: CL amends its TOU – again – to remove “exclusive license” language from its TOS:

Second, Craigslist may be able to rely on copyright arguments similar to those historically made by mapmakers and telephone book publishers, where the compilation of otherwise public facts is itself copyrightable. (See, for example, Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 US 340 (1991).)  This argument, where the unique presentation, design, layout, or formatting give a compiler a copyright edge, still gives scant protection to the component parts, but it can give viability to a legal claim of misappropriation.

Other Arguments – Trademark and Unfair Competition

Craigslist makes other legal arguments, including most notably trademark infringement and dilution claims and California state law unfair competition claims.  These are subjects beyond the scope of the present discussion, although they do seem to raise the kinds of issues that the likes of Rockefeller Plaza in New York City deals with: Once a year, every year, the plaza is closed to public access in order to allow its owners to continue to assert their private ownership.   Perhaps Craigslist, too, feels some periodic necessity to remind its users that freedom of internet use is not free.

September 24: 3Taps files answer and counterclaim against CL.  Counterclaims:

  • Antitrust
  • Unfair competition
  • Interference with economic advantage

From 3Taps antitrust counterclaim complaint:

3taps is not alleging that craigslist acquired its widespread monopoly power improperly – far from it; craigslist should be applauded for bringing online classifieds into the modern age and achieving its initial dominance over various U.S. markets for the “onboarding” (i.e., the process of inputting and uploading factual content on the internet) of user-generated classified ads by those seeking a personal exchange transaction for various goods and services, including apartment rentals, jobs, personal services, general goods, and other sales.

What 3taps is complaining about is how craigslist has maintained (and continues to maintain) its monopoly power in these three related markets. Certainly, craigslist has not maintained this power by competing on the merits. Indeed, for years, craigslist has espoused the classic principles of a monopolist that believed it did not need to compete: a “strategy” of “unbranding,” “demonetizing,” and “uncompeting” —the epitome of a lethargic monopolist. And why not?  As an unchallenged monopolist across these various markets, craigslist has generated revenues somewhere between $100-$300 million per year, and that’s without sinking any significant costs into research and development or innovation.

September 24: Craigslist launches its own mapping capability.

Bruce Fryer, an intern with Mirsky & Company, PLLC, contributed to this post.

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Pinterest: Fair Use of Images, Building Communities, Fan Pages, Copyright

When using Pinterest (and Flickr and YouTube and Facebook and on and on), what copyright, fair use, trademark and other issues weigh on building communities and fan pages and social media generally?  A hypothetical “Company” has plans for its Pinterest “community”, and in particular, wonders about these situations:

  • Using Images of Identifiable People
  • Fair Use and Images
  • Trademarks: When is a “Fair Use” Argument Strongest?
  • Why Attribution and Linking to Original Sources is Important

3 introductory questions:

Question #1: Someone used to be a paid Company sponsor or spokesperson.  They are no longer.  Can the Company continue to post a photo of the old sponsor to Pinterest?  Short Answer: If the contract with the sponsor expressly permits it, yes.  Ordinarily, the contract would specify engagement for limited time, and that would prohibit rights to use images beyond the contract period.  But it really depends on what the contract says.

Question #2: Can the Company post a photo of a fan of the Company?  Short Answer: Express consent is required, either through a release or the fan’s agreement (whenever the photo is submitted) to terms of service.  Exceptions are discussed below.

Question #3: Can the Company post a photo of a Coca-Cola bottle on its Pinterest page?  Short Answer: If the use of the image does not suggest (implicitly or explicitly) endorsement or association, then yes.

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Can I Print This? 3D Printing and Intellectual Property (Q&A)

My colleague, Miguel Abaunza, works in design and recently purchased a 3D printer. Miguel started bringing me and my roommate jewelry, some small trinkets and this really cool bulb cover I was immediately curious about the extent of these capabilities: what all could this printer actually print?  Miguel pointed me in the direction of a Ted Talk in which Marc Goodman mentions that 3D printers can print in chocolate! Goodman also highlights security risks that these machines may pose as the technology advances and becomes more accessible. I became curious about the implications of intellectual property law in 3D printing.

In this post, I called on Andrew Mirsky to answer some questions I have on this topic.  Andrew is an attorney with Mirsky & Company, PLLC:

First some background: 3D printers print objects.  After you input a design, the print job yields a three-dimensional figure composed of tightly-welded plastic or metal.  

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SaaS: Software License or Service Agreement? Start with Copyright

SaaS, short for “Software as a Service”, is a software delivery model that grants users access to a program while the software itself and its accompanying data are stored off-site, on a vendor’s (or another third party’s) servers.  A user accesses the program via the internet, and the access is provided as a service.  Hence … “Software as a Service”.

In terms of user interface functionality, a SaaS service – typically accessed via a subscription model – is identical to a traditional software model in which a user purchases (or more typically, licenses) a physical copy of the software for installation on and access via the user’s own computer.  And in enterprise structures, the software is installed on an organization’s servers and accessed via dedicated “client” end machines, under one of many client-server setups.  In that sense, SaaS is much like the traditional client-server enterprise model where servers in both cases will likely be offsite, the difference being that SaaS servers are owned and managed by the software owner.  The “cloud” really just refers to the invisibility of the legal and operational relationship of the servers to the end user, since even in traditional client-server structures servers might very likely be offsite and accessed only via internet.

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MegaUpload – Where is my Data?

A not-insignificant consequence of the federal government’s move in January to shut down the popular file-sharing site MegaUpload is that customers are blocked from being able to access their files.

First, some background. In January, the government charged that MegaUpload and its founder Kim Dotcom operated an organization dedicated to copyright infringement, or in other words operated for the purpose of a criminal enterprise.  The site provided a number of online services related to file storage and viewing, which (among other things) allowed users to download copyrighted material.  The government also claimed in its indictment that the site was also used for other criminal purposes including money laundering.

Not surprisingly, the file-sharing activities caught the unpleased eye of prominent content ownership groups

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Fair Use or Just Plain Stealing? “Transformative” Art in a Digital World

A recent New York Times article discussed the case of an artist was sued for copyright infringement after he created paintings and collages based on photographs without crediting or obtaining permission from the photographer.

The artist, Richard Prince, based his works on photographs from a book about Rastafarians “to create the collages and a series of paintings based on [those photographs],” reported Randy Kennedy in the Times.

Then ensued a discussion of the degree to which material must be transformed to fall under copyright law’s “fair use” protection, which would allow use of copyrighted material if, as the article explains, “the new thing ‘adds value to the original’ so that society as a whole is culturally enriched by it.”  (The reference is to a 1990 Harvard Law Review article by Federal Judge Pierre Leval.  I previously discussed fair use’s 4-prong analysis in the context of photographs and artwork, here and in mashups here.)

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