Monday 14 September 2015

Electronic Frontier Foundation Successful in DMCA Take-Down Ninth Circuit Case But Issues Remain

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (with jurisdiction over federal appeals in California and several other western states) issued an opinion in Lenz v. Universal Music Corporation.  The Ninth Circuit held that before submitting a Digital Millennium Copyright Act take-down notice a content holder must determine that a use was not a fair use.  The Lenz case involved a take-down notice based on a portion of a Prince song playing during a posted video of Ms. Lenz's children playing.   The Electronic Frontier Foundation, that represented Ms. Lenz with Keker and Van Nest, noted that the decision is particularly important given the upcoming Presidential election and the amount of critical content that may be subject to efforts to censure.  However, the Ninth Circuit also stated that:

To be clear, if a copyright holder ignores or neglects our unequivocal holding that it must consider fair use before sending a takedown notification, it is liable for damages under § 512(f). If, however, a copyright holder forms a subjective good faith belief the allegedly infringing material does not constitute fair use, we are in no position to dispute the copyright holder’s belief even if we would have reached the opposite conclusion. A copyright holder who pays lip service to the consideration of fair use by claiming it formed a good faith belief when there is evidence to the contrary is still subject to § 512(f) liability. . . .

In order to comply with the strictures of § 512(c)(3)(A)(v), a copyright holder’s consideration of fair use need not be searching or intensive. We follow Rossi’s guidance that formation of a subjective good faith belief does not require investigation of the allegedly infringing content. See 391 F.3d at 1003, 1005. We are mindful of the pressing crush of voluminous infringing content that copyright holders face in a digital age. But that does not excuse a failure to comply with the procedures outlined by Congress.

The Ninth Circuit went on to later hold that “willful blindness doctrine may be used to determine whether a copyright holder “knowingly materially misrepresent[ed]” that it held a “good faith belief” the offending activity was not a fair use.”  Notably, the Ninth Circuit briefly touched on the usage of software to discover potentially infringing content, but expressly declined to address the important issue:

We note, without passing judgment, that the implementation of computer algorithms appears to be a valid and good faith middle ground for processing a plethora of content while still meeting the DMCA’s requirements to somehow consider fair use. Cf. Hotfile, 2013 WL 6336286, at *47 (“The Court . . . is unaware of any decision to date that actually addressed the need for human review, and the statute does not specify how belief of infringement may be formed or what knowledge may be chargeable to the notifying entity.”). For example, consideration of fair use may be sufficient if copyright holders utilize computer programs that automatically identify for takedown notifications content where: “(1) the video track matches the video track of a copyrighted work submitted by a content owner; (2) the audio track matches the audio track of that same copyrighted work; and (3) nearly the entirety . . . is comprised of a single copyrighted work.” . . . Copyright holders could then employ individuals like Johnson to review the minimal remaining content a computer program does not cull. . . . During oral argument Universal explained that service providers now use screening algorithms. However, we need not definitively decide the issue here because Universal did not proffer any evidence that—at the time it sent the takedown notification to Lenz—it used a computer program to identify potentially infringing content.

The value of copyrights (and trademarks) rely upon cost-effective enforcement for sure.  And, the issue of automated processing of analysis of trademark and copyright infringement is an important one.  Notably, the U.S. does not have an analogous statutory take-down procedure for trademarks as well.  However, websites are known to follow the basic procedures of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act when trademark owners allege trademark infringement based on third party posting of content on a website.  Trademark owners would be wise to consider whether to follow the Lenz case before issuing a trademark take-down notice. 

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