Copyright Act Submission Hold: Professional Wrestler’s Publicity and Privacy Claims Preempted

copyrightGuest Commentary

by Sara Thornton, a 2015 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

What do copyright law, a WWE professional wrestler, and ESPN have in common? They were all involved in an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Ray v. ESPN, Inc., decided on April 22, 2015. Steve “Wild Thing” Ray sued ESPN under Missouri law for broadcasting WWE rerun matches featuring Ray in the early 1990s.

The specific claims were for (1) invasion of privacy, (2) misappropriation of name, (3) infringement of the right of publicity, and (4) interference with prospective economic advantage. ESPN moved to dismiss the suit, asserting that federal copyright law preempted the state-law claims. The district court construed Ray’s first two claims as being identical under Missouri law, so analyzed them as one. It also assumed that since Ray did not challenge ESPN’s argument that copyright law preempted his first and fourth claims, Ray had waived those claims. The court concluded that the Copyright Act preempted Ray’s remaining misappropriation and right of publicity claims. Continue reading

Will the American Law Institute “Restate” or Try to Rewrite U.S. Copyright Law?

copyrightOn April 24, 2013, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte announced that the committee would be undertaking “a wide review of our nation’s copyright laws and related enforcement mechanisms.” Five months later, UC Berkeley School of Law Professor Pamela Samuelson formally requested that the American Law Institute (ALI) prepare a restatement of copyright law. It might seem odd that a prestigious institution like ALI would devote time and resources to restating the “law of copyright” when the U.S. House of Representatives is taking steps to possibly amend the federal Copyright Act. But it is going forward with a Restatement of the Law, Copyright project.

ALI is an organization of academics, lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals that studies various areas of law and prepares treatises that “clarify, modernize, and otherwise improve the law.” Courts and legislatures look upon ALI’s best-known treatises, such as the Restatement of Contracts, as authoritative summaries of state common law—i.e. legal principles derived from judicial decisions. A review of its current projects, though, suggests that ALI is drifting away from its traditional approach.

Professor Samuelson’s letter stated that an ALI copyright project “could provide an invaluable and timely analysis and framework for other reform efforts that are currently underway.” Further on in the letter she implies a much larger ambition when decrying the “long and contentious process” of passing laws that makes “comprehensive reform of the statute . . . unlikely to happen any time soon”: Lawyers, academics, and judges at ALI, she seems to suggest, are better positioned to bring clarity to the law of copyright than elected officials in Congress. Continue reading

Advertisers Develop Voluntary Program to Deter Unwitting Online Ad Support of Copyright Pirates

copyrightwarningLast fall, WLF Legal Pulse highlighted some copyright and patent owners’ use of self-help initiatives to bolster their intellectual property rights. The copyright owners discussed in that post—chiefly movie and entertainment studios—face an especially daunting challenge due to the digital nature and distribution of the content they produce. In addition to individual acts of copyright infringement, entertainment providers must confront sophisticated and elusive websites devoted largely to facilitating content piracy. As we discussed in another fall 2014 blog commentary, these “cyberlockers” enjoy an average profit ratio of over 64% thanks in part to legitimate businesses’ advertisements and the payment processing of services like MasterCard and Visa.

For the past several years, advertisers have worked to address ad-support for online piracy. Those efforts have now crystallized into a formal voluntary program announced last week by the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG). TAG, which consists of major advertising-related trade associations, launched the Brand Integrity Program Against Piracy. Under the program, TAG will work with independent third parties, such as Ernst & Young, to certify companies that assist advertisers and ad agencies to avoid ad placement on cyberlockers and other undesirable websites. If these companies meet certain effectiveness criteria, TAG will validate them as “Digital Advertising Assurance Providers” (DAAPs). The Business Integrity Program also allows large ad networks and publishers that have already implemented internal controls to self-verify as DAAPs.

TAG developed the voluntary DAAPs certification program without the involvement or encouragement of government regulators. As market actors whose legitimacy and credibility are crucial to their continued success, advertisers and ad agencies understood that ads for multi-billion-dollar brands could not continue to support unlawful activity. Much of that brand value exists thanks in no small part to intellectual property protection. No doubt entertainment content owners underscored that reality when encouraging those trademark owners and their advertisers to take action against content piracy. All those involved in the Brand Integrity Program Against Piracy have a shared stake in its success, and the voluntary nature of the program allows them to quickly adapt their efforts. Such incentives and flexibility do not exist in a one-size-fits-all government regulatory program.

TAG and the other architects of this certification initiative are to be applauded for their announcement. We will monitor further developments with great interest. We also hope that the voluntary, concerted effort sends a strong message to the payment processors whose services continue to assist copyright infringement. The next important move is theirs.

Also published by at WLF’s contributor site

Update: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Urges Payment Processors to Deter Online Copyright Piracy

copyrightwarningIn our October 2, 2014 post, Profit, Not Ideology, Motivates Cyberlockers that Facilitate Copyright Infringement, we noted that a Digital Citizens Alliance study found that 29 out of the 30 cyberlockers it reviewed accepted payment using a MasterCard or Visa credit card. We urged those payment processors to follow the example of PayPal, which has worked aggressively to deny such piracy-facilitating sites the use of its service.

Today, the current Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, added his influential voice to those pressing for further MasterCard and Visa action. He sent letters to the CEOs of those businesses asking them to swiftly review the complaints against those cyberlockers and to ensure that payment processing services offered to those sites, or any others dedicated to infringing activity, cease.”

Senator Leahy also made the important point that not only do the payment processors “unwittingly contribute” to cyberlockers’ profitability, they also “lend[ ] the sites a harmful imprimatur of legitimacy” by allowing their logos to appear on the sites. He continued, “A consumer wondering whether a site is offering lawful access to copyrighted content may easily trust the cyberlocker’s legitimacy if world-respected payment processors service the site.”

Copyright and Patent Holders Advance Separate Market-Based, Self-Help Initiatives

copyrightIntellectual property (IP) rights and innovation are inextricably intertwined. It’s not surprising, then, that in the spirit of innovation, some IP owners have taken proactive steps to advance and defend their own property rights. They understand that reliance on current or future government action is no panacea. In separate developments this past week, some of the world’s most successful copyright holders adopted a creative approach to bolster those rights, while leaders of three different patent “self-help” entities explained their unique strategies at a Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) briefing.

Copyrights and WhereToWatch. Pirated online file peddlers and their apologists routinely argue that they are meeting consumers’ unfulfilled demand for affordable access to digital music, movies, and TV shows. As we noted in a WLF Legal Pulse post last month, however, “Huge music libraries can be accessed for free or low cost at outlets such as Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, and iTunes. Online options for TV and movie content continue to multiply. Copyright-infringing consumers can no longer claim that they seek pirated content because it isn’t digitally available for a reasonable price.” A September 23, 2014 report by KPMG provides empirical supports that argument. It found, for instance, that 96% of the top 20 movies for the years 2000 to 2010 were available through legal online distributors. Also, 96% of television’s top 100 shows in 2012 were available. Continue reading

Profit, Not Ideology, Motivates Cyberlockers that Facilitate Copyright Infringement

copyrightwarningInformation wants to be free” is a standard rejoinder to criticism of online entertainment piracy. Such a sentiment may motivate some copyright thieves, but profit, not ideology, drives the proprietors of “cyberlockers” whose business is trafficking pirated entertainment content. A recent study by the Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA)—”Behind the Cyberlocker Door“— has laid bare that reality. These websites generate profit margins that lawful businesses can only dream of, and they do so on the backs of countless workers in the music, movie, and television industries.

DCA analyzed data from the 15 top direct download cyberlockers and 15 top streaming cyberlockers. It found that 78% of the files on the direct download sites, and 84% on the streaming sites, were infringing content such as music, movies, and TV shows. Total annual revenue for the 30 businesses was $96.2 million, which averages out to $3.2 million a site. The average profit ratio of the direct download sites was 63.4%, with one site enjoying 88.5%. For the streaming cyberlockers, the average ratio was 87.6%, with the highest coming in at 96.3%.

Much like people who run the illicit cyberlockers, some of those who unlawfully access and share copyright-protected content may claim to be advancing an extreme public commons ideology or “sticking it to Big Entertainment,” but the volume of such piracy reflects a baser motivation. Pirated content consumers’ catchphrase shouldn’t be “information wants to be free;” it should be  “we want free information.” Continue reading

Update: Ninth Circuit Ruling a Final End to Copyright “Troll’s” Legal Charade?

copyrightNearly two years ago, in a Legal Pulse post and a WLF Legal Opinion Letter, we discussed the strong judicial response to the copyright litigation scheme pursued by a company called Righthaven LLC. Righthaven was created at the behest of newspaper-owning media company Stephens Media as a vehicle to sue bloggers and other online information outlets which had reprinted articles originally published in Stephens’ newspapers. Thankfully rather than pay the copyright troll’s “toll,” several bloggers refused and Righthaven sued them.

Federal District Judge Philip Pro dismissed Righthaven’s suit for two reasons.  First, because the agreement between Stephens Media and Righthaven assigned only the right to sue potential copyright infringers, Righthaven did not have the exclusive rights needed to possess standing to sue. Second, the bloggers’ reprinting of articles constituted fair use under federal law. Several days after this ruling, Judge Pro ruled that Righthaven had to pay $34,000 in attorneys’ fees. In a separate but related case, a federal judge sanctioned Righthaven $5,000 for failing to disclose its financial ties to Stephens Media.

Apparently not embracing the modified maxim “it’s time to quit while you’re behind,” Righthaven decided to spend more money on legal fees and appealed its loss to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In an appropriately terse opinion yesterday, the Ninth Circuit panel unanimously affirmed Judge Pro on the issue of standing. Circuit Judge Clifton initiated his opinion with a reference to an Abraham Lincoln story about a lawyer who tried to “establish that a calf had five legs by calling its leg a tail.” As Lincoln observed, “calling a tail a leg does not make it so.” Similarly, just because Righthaven called itself a copyright owner does not mean it in fact is.

The court essentially went on to restate the very clear legal standards relied upon by District Judge Pro. Regretfully for bloggers and other online information providers, the court vacated the portion of Judge Pro’s ruling that the reprinting activity constituted fair use, since the case could be dismissed on procedural grounds.