Internet Copyright Infringement – Courts Weigh-In

We frequently handle Internet copyright infringement issues.  These issues present themselves in many forms.  Some examples include: Internet copyright infringement resulting from copied website contents, Internet copyright infringement claims against ISP resulting from copied website photographs, Internet copyright infringement claims against Internet search engine from displaying copyright images as thumbnails with the indexed results, and Internet copyright infringement claim against search engine and online retailer resulting from the use of copyrighted images as thumbnails.

Internet copyright infringement decisions are far from uniform.  Quuite to the contrary, Internet law is one of the least predictable areas of law. However, the decisions of some courts follow:

Internet copyright infringement from copied Internet website contents

The owner of a website that sold goods and services over the Internet discovered that a competitor had copied the contents of its website and had created a rival Internet site that was a virtual mirror image if its website. The website was copied by posting identical source code at other Internet websites. The replication of the site diverted traffic and sales from the original website.

A New York federal court held that the Internet copyright infringement resulting from the copying of the website was willful and awarded statutory damages for Internet copyright infringement as well as costs and attorneys’ fees.

The Court found that the infringement was willful and awarded statutory damages with the objectives of compensating copyright owners for past infringement and deterring future infringement. The Factors considered relevant to determining an appropriate statutory damages award include the “expenses saved and profits reaped by the infringers,” the revenues lost by the plaintiff, the infringers’ state of mind (wilful, knowing or merely innocent), the value of the copyright and the deterrent effect on both the defendant and others. The court also awarded attorney’s fees and costs

Internet copyright infringement claims against ISP resulting from copied website photographs

The owner of an Internet website containing commercial real estate information sues an ISP for Internet copyright infringement, contributory copyright infringement, vicarious Internet copyright infringement, and challenging the applicability of the DMCA safe harbor provision to the ISP.

A Virginia federal court dismissed the claims of Internet copyright infringement, contributory copyright infringement, and vicarious copyright infringement. The DMCA safe harbor provision protected the ISP.

A provider of commercial real estate information on the Internet collected a comprehensive a comprehensive database of information on commercial real estate markets and commercial properties in the United States and the United Kingdom. The database, including photographs was available to customers through the Internet.

An Internet service provider’s (“ISP”) website allowed subscribers, generally real estate brokers, to post listings of commercial real estate on the Internet. The ISPs terms of service included a promise not to post copies of photographs without authorization. When informed of the violations, the ISP removed the photographs.

The commercial real estate provider commenced action against the ISP for copyright infringement, violation of the Lanham Act, and several state-law causes of action. A federal court in Maryland held that the ISP had not engaged in direct infringement under the Copyright Act. It left open, however, CoStar’s claims that LoopNet might have contributorily infringed CoStar’s copyrights and that LoopNet was not entitled to the “safe harbor” immunity provided by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 512.

The U.S. Court of Appeals held that an Internet service provider (ISP) could not be held liable as a direct copyright infringer when its facility was used by subscriber to violate copyright without intervening conduct of ISP; ISP, which provided system that automatically received subscriber’s infringing material and transmitted it to Internet at instigation of subscriber, had not itself fixed copy in its system of more than transitory duration.

Internet service providers (ISPs), when passively storing material at direction of users in order to make that material available to other users upon their request, do not “copy” material in direct violation of Copyright Act. 17 U.S.C.A. § 106.

Automatic copying, storage, and transmission of copyrighted materials, when instigated by others, does not render Internet service provider (ISP) directly liable for copyright infringement; ISP can become liable indirectly upon showing of additional involvement sufficient to establish contributory or vicarious infringement, but even then may still look to Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for safe harbor if it fulfilled conditions therein. 17 U.S.C.A. §§ 106, 501, 512.

Internet copyright infringement claim against Internet search engine from displaying copyright images as thumbnails with the indexed results

A professional photographer and owner of copyrighted images displayed on his Internet web site sued a leading Internet search engine, which displayed search results as “thumbnail” pictures, for copyright infringement.

A California federal court dismissed the claim of Internet copyright infringement. The use of copyrighted images that were displayed on Internet web sites by the search engine, which displayed search results as “thumbnail” pictures, was “fair use” of copyrighted images.

The plaintiff was a professional photographer who has copyrighted many of his images. Some of these images are located on plaintiff’s web site or other web sites with which plaintiff had a license agreement. The defendant operated an internet search engine that displayed its results in the form of small pictures rather than the more usual form of text. The defendant obtained its database of pictures by copying images from other web sites. By clicking on one of these small pictures, called “thumbnails,” the user can then view a large version of that same picture within the context of the web page.

When plaintiff discovered that his photographs were part of defendant’s search engine database, he brought a claim against defendant for copyright infringement. The court found that plaintiff had established a prima facie case of copyright infringement based on defendant’s unauthorized reproduction and display of plaintiff’s works, but that this reproduction and display constituted a non-infringing “fair use” under Section 107 of the Copyright Act.

The use of copyrighted images that were displayed on Internet web sites by operator of visual search engine, which displayed search results as “thumbnail” pictures, was “fair use” of copyrighted images; although creative nature of the copyrighted works weighed in favor of image owner, purpose and character of operator’s use of works and effect of that use on potential market for or value of works weighed in favor of search engine operator. 17 U.S.C.A. § 107.

Internet copyright infringement claim against search engine and online retailer resulting from the use of copyrighted images as thumbnails

A copyright owner brought legal action major Internet search engine and Internet retailer for Internet copyright infringement resulting from the copying of copyrighted images. The copyright owner sought a preliminary injunction based on its claim of Internet copyright infringement to prevent the retailer and the search engine from copying, reproducing, distributing, displaying, or otherwise
infringing, or contributing to the Internet copyright infringement of its photographs.

A California court dismissed the claim of Internet copyright infringement, held that the Internet search engine operator’s display of thumbnail images of copyright owner’s photographs, in response to user searches, was fair use of copyrighted photographs; operator put images to a use fundamentally different than use intended by owner, thereby providing significant benefit to the public.

A copyright owner brought legal action major Internet search engine and Internet retailer for Internet copyright infringement resulting from the copying of copyrighted images. The copyright owner sought a preliminary injunction based on its claim of Internet copyright infringement to prevent the retailer and the search engine from copying, reproducing, distributing, displaying, or otherwise infringing, or contributing to the Internet copyright infringement of its photographs.

Internet search engine operator’s display of thumbnail images of copyright owner’s photographs, in response to user searches, was fair use of copyrighted photographs; operator put images to a use fundamentally different than use intended by owner, thereby providing significant benefit to the public. 17 U.S.C.A. § 107.

Even if search engine users who linked to websites showing owner’s copyrighted photographs automatically made “cache” copies of full size images of the works, and such action amounted to direct infringement of owner’s right of reproduction, such automatic copying was fair use of copyrighted images; such copying was a transformative use, the cache copied no more than was necessary to assist the user in Internet use, and the copying had no more than a minimal effect on owner’s rights, while having a considerable public benefit. 17 U.S.C.A. § 107.

Owner of copyrighted photographs was not likely to succeed on its claim of vicarious copyright infringement by Internet search engine operator that provided, to its users, links to third-party websites that reproduced, displayed, and distributed unauthorized copies of owner’s images, as required for preliminary injunction prohibiting such linking; owner did not demonstrate likelihood of showing that operator had legal right to stop or limit direct infringement of third-party websites, notwithstanding agreements, through an advertising program, permitting it to terminate an entity’s participation in that program, operator could not terminate third-party websites or block their ability to host and serve infringing full-size images on the Internet, and operator lacked practical ability to police the infringing activities of third-party websites.

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