I’ve often advised vendor-clients that one of the best ways to protect themselves is to include an acceptance clause in their agreements. This can be accomplished either through an explicit acceptance clause or a short warranty period, which can function as a de facto acceptance clause. For some reason, many customers seem to forget about the acceptance clause, giving the vendor a strong defense to a claim of breach.

This is what happened in Samia v. MRI Software, decided by Massachusetts federal district court judge Nathaniel Gorton on October 9, 2014.

Samia purchased computer software, consulting and technical support from MRI. The License and Services Agreement provided for a 30 day warranty period, during which Samia could notify MRI of any non-conformities and trigger a “repair-and-replacement” clause. This was, in effect, a 30 day acceptance period – Samia had 30 days to vet the software and notify MRI of any defects. This was the sole and exclusive remedy, and all other remedies were disclaimed.

The contract contained a separate provision addressing defects related to custom work authorizations. Here, Samia had a 30 day acceptance period during which it could “test any project elements … and notify [MRI] of all potential deficiencies relative to the applicable specification for such work.”

To make a long story short, Samia claimed to have found non-conformities and deficiencies, but it failed to given written notice to MRI during the 30 day period following delivery. On this basis, the court allowed MRI’s motion for summary judgment on most of its claims, leaving alive only a claim of negligent misrepresentation based on oral promises allegedly made to Samia. However, little is left of Samia’s case at this point.

If you are a vendor, do your best to include an acceptance clause (or a short warranty period) in your agreements. If you are a customer, challenge this, but if you are forced to accept it, be sure to rigorously test any deliveries in a timely manner, to avoid the defense that defeated Samia in this case.

Samia Companies LLC v. MRI Software LLC (D. Mass. Oct. 9, 2014)

 

 

Two Recent Decisions Show the Strengths and Limitations of the CDA

Many observers have commented that if they had to identify one law that has had the greatest impact in encouraging the growth of the Internet, they would chose the Communications Decency Act  (“CDA”) (47 USC § 230). 

Under the CDA (also often referred to as “Section 230″) web sites are not liable for user submitted content. As a practical matter, in most cases this means Internet providers are not liable for defamation posted by users (many of whom are anonymous or judgment-proof).* 

*[note] The DMCA, not the CDA, provides Internet providers with safe harbors for claims of copyright infringement based on user submitted content.

Two recent cases illustrate the reach and limitations of this law. In one case the CDA was held to protect the website owner from liability for defamation. In the other, the law did not protect the website from potential liability based on negligence.

Jones v. Dirty World

The CDA provides immunity from information provided by users. However, if a site itself is the “content provider” — for example, the author of defamation —  it is legally responsible for the publication. In other words, the CDA does not give Internet providers or web site owners license to engage in defamation, only immunity when their users do so.

Under the CDA the term “content provider” is defined as a person “that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information ….” Therefore, in many cases, the issue has been who is responsible for the “creation or development” of the defamatory content – the poster or the site owner?

This was the issue before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment Recordings LLC.

Nik Richie owns Dirty World, an online tabloid (www.thedirty.com). Users, not Mr. Richie or his company, create most of the content, which often is unflattering to its subjects. However, Dirty World encourages offensive contributions by its “dirty army,” and it selects the items that are published from user contributions. In addition, Mr. Richie often adds a sentence or two of commentary or encouragement to the user contributions.

Sarah Jones, a teacher and cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals was repeatedly and crudely defamed on the site. However, the defamation was contained in the posts written and contributed by users, not Richie or his company. In fact, it’s easy to see that Ritchie had been carefully coached as to what he can and cannot say on the site (as distinct from what his contributors say).

Dirty World refused to remove the defamatory posts, and Sarah Jones (who apparently was unaware of the Streisland Effect) sued Richie. Two federal court trials ensued (a mistrial and a $338,000 verdict for Jones).

Before and during the trial proceedings Richie asserted immunity under the CDA. The trial judge, however, refused to apply the law in Dirty World’s favor. The district court held that “a website owner who intentionally encourages illegal or actionable third-party postings to which he adds his own comments ratifying or adopting the posts becomes a ‘creator’ or ‘developer’ of that content and is not entitled to immunity.” Of course, there was a reasonably strong argument that Dirty World and Ritchie did exactly this – encouraged defamatory postings and added comments that ratified or adopted the posts — and hence the jury verdict in Jones’ favor.

After the second trial Richie appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which reversed, holding that Dirty World and Richie were immune from liability under the CDA.

The first question before the Sixth Circuit was whether Dirty World “developed” the material that defamed Sarah Jones. In a leading CDA case decided by the Ninth Circuit in 2008 – Fair Housing Council of San Francisco Valley v. Roommates, LLC –  the Ninth Circuit established the following “material contribution” test: a website helps to develop unlawful content, and therefore is not entitled to immunity under the CDA, if it “contributes materially to the alleged illegality of the conduct.”

The Sixth Circuit adopted this test, and held a “material contribution” meant ” being responsible for what makes the displayed content allegedly unlawful.” Dirty World was not responsible for the unlawful content concerning Ms. Jones.

Second, consistent with many other cases applying the CDA, the court held that soliciting defamatory submissions did not cause Dirty World to lose immunity.

Lastly, the Sixth Circuit rejected the district court’s holding that by “ratifying or adopting” third-party content a web site loses CDA immunity: A website operator cannot be responsible for what makes another party’s statement actionable by commenting on that statement post hoc. To be sure, a website operator’s previous comments on prior postings could encourage subsequent invidious postings, but that loose understanding of responsibility collapses into the encouragement measure of ‘development,’ which we reject.”

The $338,000 verdict was set aside, and the district court instructed to enter judgment in favor of Richie and Dirty World.

The Sixth Circuit’s decision was no surprise. Many people in the legal community believed that the trial court judge was in error in failing to dismiss this case before trial. Nevertheless, it is a reminder of how far the CDA can go in protecting website owners from user postings, and adds to the road map lawyers can use to make sure their clients stay on the “safe” side of the line between legal and illegal conduct under this law.

Jane Doe 14 v. Internet Brands (dba Modelmayhem.com)

Things went the other way for Modelmayhem, in a case decided by the Ninth Circuit on September 17, 2014.

Like Dirty World, this case involved a sympathetic plaintiff. The plaintiff, “Jane Doe,” posted information about herself on the “Model Mayhem” site, a mayhemnetworking site for the modeling industry. Two rapists used the site to lure her to a fake audition, at which they drugged and raped her. She alleged that Internet Brands knew about the rapists, who had engaged in similar behavior before her attack, but failed to warn her and other users of the site. She filed suit, alleging negligence based on “failure to warn.”*

*[note] The two men have been convicted of these crimes and sentenced to life in prison.

In this case, like Dirty World, the district court again got it wrong and was reversed on appeal. However, in this case the district court wrongly held that the site was protected by the CDA.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, stating -

Jane Doe … does not seek to hold Internet Brands liable as a “publisher or speaker” of content … or for Internet Brands’ failure to remove content posted on the website. [The rapists] are not alleged to have posted anything themselves. … The duty to warn … would not require Internet Brands to remove any user content or otherwise affect how it publishes such content. … In sum, Jane Doe’s negligent failure to warn claim does not seek to hold Internet Brands liable as the “publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” As a result, we conclude that the CDA does not bar this claim.

This ruling has raised the hackles on advocates of broad CDA coverage. Their “parade of horribles” resulting from this decision includes questioning how broadly the duty to warn extends, practical questions about how a web site would provide effective warnings, and concerns about various unintended (and as yet hypothetical) consequences that may result from this decision. However, based on the broad interpretation the courts have given the CDA in the last two decades, it seems unlikely that this case will have significant implications for CDA jurisprudence. Nevertheless, like Jones v. Dirty World, it is one more precedent lawyers must take into consideration in advising their clients.

Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment Recordings LLC (6th Cir. 2014)

Doe v. Internet Brands, Inc. (9th Cir. Sept. 17, 2014) 

 

Google Rolls the Dice, Files Cert Petition in Oracle Copyright Case

Google has filed a certiorari petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to review and reverse the Federal Circuit’s May 9, 2014 decision holding that the declaring code of Oracle’s Java API software is not copyrightable. I have written about this case on several occasions, most recently on May 10, 2014 (CAFC Reverses Judge Alsup – Java API Declaring Code Held Copyrightable).

Google framed the “question presented” (framing the question in such a way as to catch the interest of the court is an art form in itself) as follows:

Whether copyright protection extends to all elements of an original work of computer software, including a system or method of operation, that an author could have written in more than one way.

The Supreme Court accepts review of approximately 1% of of cases appealed to it, and therefore lawyers spend a great deal of time and effort to make their cases as significant and interesting as possible. Here, Google asks the Court to take the case in order to decide an issue the Court deadlocked on in 1996 in Lotus v. Borland. Google’s brief states:

In 1995, this Court granted certiorari in Lotus Development Corp. v. Borland International, Inc., 516 U.S. 233 (1996), to resolve the question presented here. The First Circuit had held―consistent with the plain language of 17 U.S.C. § 102(b) but in conflict with other courts of appeals―that methods of operation embodied in computer programs are not entitled to copyright protection. This Court deadlocked, affirming by an equally divided court. Two decades later, this oft-acknowledged circuit split has deepened and the question presented has grown even more important as software has become a fixture of modern life.

This case directly implicates the unanswered question in Lotus because the Federal Circuit extended copyright protection to systems and methods of operation, including computer interfaces. That holding would obstruct an enormous amount of innovation in fast-moving, high-technology industries, in part because innovation depends on software developers’ ability to build on what has come before. If the Federal Circuit’s holding had been the law at the inception of the Internet age, early computer companies could have blocked vast amounts of technological development by claiming 95-year copyright monopolies over the basic building blocks of computer design and programming. By the time Google and countless other innovators even came onto the scene, others could have locked up the field for longer than most people will live.

. . . [By holding that] copyright protection … extend[s] to a system or method of operation so long as there was more than one way to write it the Federal Circuit usurped Congress’s role, deepened a circuit split that this Court previously granted certiorari to resolve, allowed Oracle to use copyright law to evade the limits on patent protection, and thereby blocked developers from building on what has come before. The court did so, moreover, in one of the most important cases of its kind, concerning the widely used Java language and Android platform. This Court’s review is needed now, before tomorrow’s innovation falls victim to the decision below.

Google is correct in arguing that there is a circuit split over the issue presented in Lotus v. Borland. In fact, no federal circuit court has held (as the First Circuit did in Lotus), that methods of operation based in computer software are uncopyrightable, leaving the First Circuit an outlier on this issue.

However, whether this issue will attract the Court’s attention is impossible to know – four justices must vote in favor of review, but that decision is made in the context of all of the competing cases presented to the Court. If the Court does accept review — and if the Supreme Court decides the issue it was unable to resolve close to 20 years ago — this will be an important and interesting copyright case.

The Supreme Court rarely accepts review of copyright cases, but the Court reviewed two copyright cases in its last term, so perhaps momentum will play a role in its decision whether to accept review in this case.

For those interested in how the Supreme Court viewed this issue in 1996 based on oral argument, the transcript of oral argument is linked here.

Grooveshark's Lesson: Better to Ask Permission Than Forgiveness

One thing that any online “music locker” company that relies on third-party content and hopes to benefit from the DMCA safe harbor should know is that employees should not upload copyrighted content to the service. Nothing will blow up a DMCA defense faster.

It seems that Grooveshark (legally “Escape Media”), didn’t get this message. As Joshua Greenberg, one of Grooveshark’s co-founders wrote to employees in 2007:

Download as many MP3′s as possible, and add them to the folders you’re sharing on Grooveshark. Some of us are setting up special ‘seed points’ to house tens or even hundreds of thousands of files, but we can’t do this alone… There is no reason why ANYONE in the company should not be able to do this, and I expect everyone to have this done by Monday… IF I DON’T HAVE AN EMAIL FROM YOU IN MY INBOX BY MONDAY, YOU’RE ON MY OFFICIAL SHIT LIST.

Strong stuff, and not the kind of thing you want to have pop up in discovery.

Grooveshark has been the target of multiple industry lawsuits. Two, in particular, are an action in SDNY in which the court, on September 29, 2014, entered summary judgment against Grooveshark, and a New York state action alleging infringement of pre-1972 sounds recordings, which at present are not covered by federal copyright law.

However, it is difficult to see how the September 29th decision doesn’t mark the end of the line for Grooveshark. The decision holds Grooveshark and its two founders (Greenberg and Samuel Tarantino) liable for direct and secondary copyright infringement. A few additional quotes from the 57 page opinion tell the story:

  •  When it began “Grooveshark did not have a large user base to leverage as a source for content.” Therefore, it told its employees “to create Grooveshark user accounts and to store hundreds of thousands of digital music files on their computers in order to upload or ‘seed’ copies of these files to other Grooveshark users.”
  • “Escape’s senior officers searched for infringing songs that had [been] removed in response to DMCA takedown notices and re-uploaded infringing copies of those songs to Grooveshark to ensure that the music catalog remained complete.”
  • Grooveshark “was aware that its business model depended on the use of infringing content,” but decided to “bet the company on the fact that it is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission.”
  • After moving from a peer-to-peer to a centralized storage model, Grooveshark “designed its … software so that it would automatically copy every unique music file from each of its users’ computers and upload them to the storage library.  … Grooveshark referred to this as a ‘cache everything’ policy.” Grooveshark “instructed its employees to obtain copies of digital music files from any possible source and to upload them to the central music library.”

The court found that the Grooveshark employees uploaded more than 150,000 files, and that Grooveshark’s library of songs hit the company’s goal of  2 million files.

Needless to say, Grooveshark’s activities were blatantly illegal. While the DMCA provides safe harbors for web sites that host copyrighted work uploaded by third parties, it has no relevance to works uploaded by company employees, as was the case here. One can only wonder what Grooveshark’s owners and employees were thinking to participate in what bordered on group insanity.

Whether Grooveshark sought legal advice before embarking on this voyage of folly we may never know.

In any event, it is over now.  Grooveshark.com will soon be dark, and the two founders will be stripped of their assets or forced into bankruptcy. Grooveshark’s investors (yes, it appears that “angels” may have invested over $6 million in the company) will (to borrow from Samuel Clemens) not only receive no return on their money, they’ll receive no return of their money.

For some additional thoughtful comments on this case in the broader context of how the courts have come to view music sharing sites, see Jeff John Roberts’ post on GigaOm, here.

UMG Recording v. Escape Media Group, Inc. (S.D.N.Y Sept. 24, 2014)

California "Yelp" Bill, Guarantees Right to Post (Non-Defamatory) Reviews

Imagine this.

You go to a new dentist and, before she will take you as a patient she requires you to sign an agreement that you won’t post negative reviews of her on the Internet. You go to book a wedding reception at a restaurant and before they will book your reception they ask you to sign a similar document. Even worse, you must agree that if you do post a negative review, you will owe the restaurant a $500 fine.

The Internet has been full of stories of this sort, but now one state — California — has put a stop to it. And, as is sometimes said when it comes to new laws, as California goes, so goes the country.

A bill signed into law in California on September 9, 2014, popularly referred to as the “Yelp” bill, prohibits the use of “non-disparagement” clauses in consumer contracts. The law takes effect on January 1, 2015. 

Under the new law a “contract or proposed contract for the sale or lease of consumer goods or services may not include a provision waiving the consumer’s right to make any statement regarding the seller or lessor or its employees or agents, or concerning the goods or services.” It will also be “unlawful to threaten or to seek to enforce” such a provision, or to “otherwise penalize” a consumer for making any such statement. The law carries statutory penalties ranging from $2,500 for the first offense, up to $10,000 for “willful” violations.

The impact of this law will not be limited to California businesses: it will apply to anyone doing business with consumers in California.

One aspect of this law that is important to understand is that it does not give consumers free license to defame businesses, nor does it limit the right of businesses to sue consumers for defamatory statements. It is limited to using a contract or proposed contract (whether online or on paper) to preclude the publication of reviews — even defamatory reviews — in the first place. If  a review is defamatory, the business owner’s legal rights remain as they were before enactment of this law.

Practice tip: it is possible that the new law will  be viewed as an invitation to class action plaintiffs to seek aggregated statutory damages. Therefore, it is important that companies that do business with consumers in California (whether the business itself is in California or not), review their contracts and online terms and conditions to remove non-disparagement clauses that would violate this law.

Now that the Massachusetts legislature has abandoned (at least until next session) a bill to make employer/employee noncompete agreements unenforceable (or more difficult to enforce) in Massachusetts, we’re back to business as usual in Massachusetts, and how the courts handle these cases remains of interest. And, since the preliminary injunction stage of these cases is so critical, how the courts handle preliminary injunction motions in noncompete cases is of particular interest.

Of course, noncompete law (sometimes statutory, sometimes “judge-made” case law) varies from state-to-state. A recent case highlights the extent to which even the procedure for handling these cases can differ from state-to-state.

In Massachusetts, the trial courts — federal or state — have no obligation to hold an evidentiary hearing when resolving a preliminary injunction motion. Affidavits are usually enough, and its rare to see a hearing with witnesses and cross-examination.

However, this is not the case in the 11th Circuit, which covers federal cases in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. The 11th Circuit recently held, in a noncompete case involving a preliminary injunction motion, that while an evidentiary hearing is not always required before issuance of a preliminary injunction, ““[w]here the injunction turns on the resolution of bitterly disputed facts … an evidentiary hearing is normally required to decide credibility issues. … where much depends upon the accurate presentation of numerous facts, the trial court erred in not holding an evidentiary hearing to resolve these hotly contested issues.”

The case was remanded to the trial court for a hearing.

Moral of the story: if you think an evidentiary hearing will improve your chances on a noncompete preliminary injunction motion, ask for one. Just maybe, you’ll get it. If the appealing party in this case had not asked for an evidentiary hearing, it would have had no basis for complaining, on appeal, about the failure of the court to grant one, and would not have obtained the reversal. While an Eleventh Circuit decision is only persuasive (not binding) on courts outside the Eleventh Circuit, a particular judge in another state could find it very persuasive, and an evidentiary hearing may make a difference in the outcome in the trial court. It also creates the basis for a good faith argument on appeal.

Moon v. Medical Technology Assoc. (11th Cir. Aug. 18, 2014)

Ninth Circuit Finds Barnes & Noble's "Browsewrap" Unenforceable

Online companies have often found it challenging to create enforceble terms of service (“TOS”), and the courts aren’t making it any easier. Perhaps the courts have concluded that, now that the Internet is an established commercial medium, they are not going to cut vendors any slack.

The latest decision illustrating this is the Ninth Circuit’s August 18, 2014 holding in Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble, holding that Barnes and Noble’s browsewrap agreement was not enforeable.

A website “browsewrap” agreement is where the online terms are posted on a site, typically via a link on the site’s homepage. By contrast, a “clickwrap” clickwraprequires the website user to take some affirmative action before engaging in a transaction (such as an online purchase). Typically this amounts to clicking a box on the site indicating that the user agrees to the site’s terms and conditions.

Where the user is not asked to “check the box” and the website relies on the posting alone, things can get messy. Barnes & Noble tried to impose an arbitration clause on a consumer based on a browsewrap, but the Ninth Circuit held that B&N’s browsewrap was not enforceable. Here, as is often true in these cases, the issue came down to vague factors such as where the terms were presented, and whether “a reasonably prudent user” would be put on notice of the terms. In this case, B&N didn’t do enough:

In light of the lack of controlling authority on point, and in keeping with courts’ traditional reluctance to enforce browsewrap agreements against individual consumers, we therefore hold that where a website makes its terms of use available via a conspicuous hyperlink on every page of the website but otherwise provides no notice to users nor prompts them to take any affirmative action to demonstrate assent, even close proximity of the hyperlink to relevant buttons users must click on—without more—is insufficient to give rise to constructive notice. … the onus must be on website owners to put users on notice of the terms to which they wish to bind consumers. Given the breadth of the range of technological savvy of online purchasers, consumers cannot be expected to ferret out hyperlinks to terms and conditions to which they have no reason to suspect they will be bound.

It is far from clear what constitutes a “conspicuous hyperlink” that would satisfy the test in this decision, but online business should stick with clickwrap agreements, rather than push the envelope with browsewraps. For a similar case that I wrote about in 2012, see Online Agreements – Easy To Get Right, Easy To Get Wrong.

Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble (9th Cir. Aug. 18, 2014).

Capitol Records Bares Knuckles in Redigi Suit, Goes After Founders

It’s a sad reality that when the record companies want to get serious, they sue not only companies that they claim have infringed their copyrights, but the owners of those companies. Capitol Records pursuit of Michael Robertson, despite the bankruptcy of MP3tunes, is a classic example. MP3tunes declared bankruptcy and shuttered its service, but Capitol Records (part of UMG), pursued Robertson individually, and obtained a $41 million verdict against him personally.

Capitol is using the same strategy against Redigi (“the world’s first pre-owned digital marketplace”). I’ve written about Redigi several times (see here, here and here). The last of these, Federal Judge Tells Redigi to Shut it Down, posted April 2, 2013, describes the New York federal court’s decision holding that Redigi’s digital resale business is not protected by the first sale doctrine. In that post I noted that Redigi could face millions of dollars in damages, and that liability might not be limited to the company:

Capitol may seek leave of court to add as defendants the individual owners and employees of Redigi that exercised control over or benefited from the infringement.  While Redigi could oppose such as motion as coming too late in the case, a decision would be at the discretion of the judge. As Capitol Records showed in its copyright suit against MP3tunes and Michael Robertson, Capitol is not above suing not only corporate infringers but their founders and owners. (See: The Record Labels Want My Minivan).* The philosophy of the record companies in many copyright cases may best be described as, “never kick a man when he’s down, unless that’s the only way to keep him there.” Capitol may be preparing to put on its steel toe boots in this case.

… According to the court decision Redigi consulted legal counsel before launching Redigi and engaging the recording industry in a test case. One can only hope that the attorneys Redigi consulted reminded Redigi of the Chinese proverb, “A piece of paper, blown by the wind into a law court, may in the end only be drawn out again by two oxen.”

It didn’t take long for Capitol to follow exactly that strategy. Five months later, on August 13, 2013, Capitol filed an amended complaint naming Redigi’s founding co-owners, John Ossenmacher (CEO) and Larry Rudolph (CTO) as individual defendants. Ossenmacher and Rudoph moved to dismiss, and the court denied their motion on September 2, 2014, holding that the amended complaint -

specifically alleges that the Individual Defendants were responsible both for the technology ReDigi used and for employing that technology through ReDigi’s business. It also alleges that each of ReDigi’s key activities was performed either at the behest of, or with the approval of, the two Individual Defendants. These are precisely the sorts of factual allegations that, if true, make a corporate officer personally liable for copyright infringement. … the rule is that a corporate officer is personally liable for the corporation’s infringement if he had the ability to supervise the activity and a financial interest in it, or if he personally engaged in the infringing activity.

This development just serves to thicken the plot in a case that many observers have been hoping will make it to the Second Circuit on appeal.

Will the judge’s refusal to dismiss Ossenmacher and Rudolph as defendants (albeit only on a motion to dismiss, which is by no means a final decision) now be enough to force Redigi to shut its doors? Would closure of Redigi be enough to settle the claims against the two individuals, or is Capitol out to make an example in this this case?

On the other hand, it’s possible that the founders of Redigi were well-advised before starting this company, and that they put their personal assets beyond the reach of creditors. Redigi made much of the fact that its technology was vetted and approved by a legal team before they released their service. Hopefully, this included a strategy to frustrate Capitol’s attempt to reach their personal assets.

Capitol Records v. Redigi – First Amended Complaint

September 2, 2014 Order Denying Motion to Dismiss Ossenmacher and Rudolph

Ninth Circuit Hands Oracle a Tough Choice in Oracle v. SAP Copyright Ruling

Oracle faces a tough call following the Ninth Circuit’s August 29, 2014 decision in Oracle Corp. v. SAP AG. Should Oracle accept the $ 356.7 million in copyright damages the Ninth Circuit authorized on appeal, or roll the dice for a new trial, gambling that it can do better?

I’ve written about this case before (see Oracle and SAP Avoid a Retrial, Go Directly to Appeal, in the Other “Tech Trial of the Century”). As I discussed in that September 2012 post, in 2010 Oracle won a record $1.3 billion copyright infringement jury verdict against SAP.  However, the trial judge held that the jury’s “hypothetical-license” damages award was based on undue speculation, and ordered remittitur, reducing the judgment to $272 million, and giving Oracle the choice of accepting that amount or retrying its damages case. Oracle and SAP then entered into a complex stipulation that allowed the parties to avoid an immediate retrial and permitted Oracle to appeal the district court remittitur order. The terms of the stipulation were as follows:

  • The district court entered final judgment for $272 million. (This did not include interest or the $120 million in attorney’s fees that Oracle had already been paid by SAP).
  • However, Oracle agreed not enforce the judgment until all appeals are concluded.  

Now, assuming Oracle does not appeal to the Supreme Court, decision day has arrived for Oracle. The Ninth Circuit rejected Oracle’s appeal that it reinstate the $1.3 billion, but did up the amount the district court had arrived at on remittitur ($272 million) by $84.7 million to $356.7 giving Oracle the choice of accepting that amount to end the case, or proceed with a new damages trial.

The heart of the Ninth Circuit’s decision is its holding that while a plaintiff in a copyright infringement case is not required to show that it would have saplicensed the infringed material to recover on a hypothetical license theory (an argument pressed by SAP, since it was undisputed that Oracle would never have licensed the work at issue to SAP), Oracle had failed to present sufficient non-speculative evidence to support the jury’s award of $1.3 billion. This left Oracle with the maximum amount the evidence established based on an alternative damages theory — Oracle’s lost profits plus SAP’s illegal profits — an amount the Ninth Circuit concluded was not $272 million, but $356.7 million.

My prediction: fast and furious negotiations will commence, and the case will settle. Oracle’s chances of recovering materially more than $356.7 million on retrial, given the Ninth Circuit opinion, are negligible, given that Oracle probably put on the best “lost profits/illegal profits” case it could at the first trial. However, Oracle’s chances on improving on that number are not zero, so Oracle will probably be able to obtain more than $356.7 million in a negotiated settlement, but not a great deal more. The settlement is likely to be private, so we may never know the precise amount.

Caveat: Larry Ellison gets to make the call on this for Oracle, and he might be more likely to roll the dice on a retrial than your average CEO.

Oracle Corp. v. SAP AG (9th Cir. August 29, 2014)

The U.S. Supreme Court IP Year in Review

by Lee Gesmer on September 3, 2014

[As initially published in the September 1, 2014 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly]

A lot has changed in the realm of intellectual property law following the record-breaking ten intellectual property cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2013 term. Highlights of the six unanimously decided patent cases include suits in which the Court narrowed the scope of patent protection for inventions implemented on computers, made it easier to invalidate a patent for indefiniteness, and made it easier for the district courts to shift attorneys’ fees to prevailing defendants.

The Court issued two copyright decisions, including an important ruling that may have implications for cloud computing. And, one of the Court’s two Lanham Act opinions established a new doctrine for standing in false advertising cases.

Patent

Medtronic v. Mirowski Family Ventures (Jan. 22, 2014) was the first of five decisions overruling the Federal Circuit outright. The Court held that in a declaratory judgment action for non-infringement brought by a patent licensee, the burden of proving infringement lies with the licensor/patent holder, not the licensee. Medtronic can be seen as an extension of the Court’s 2007 decision in MedImmune, Inc. v. Genentech, holding that patent licensees have standing to bring declaratory judgment actions for non-infringement or invalidity, even as they continue to make royalty payments for the product in controversy.

By placing the burden of proving infringement on patent owners, the Court has made it easier for patent licensees to challenge a patent during the license term.

Octane Fitness v. ICON Health and Fitness (April 29, 2014), may have important consequences for attorneys’ fee awards in patent cases. The case was a challenge to the Federal Circuit’s “exceptional case” standard for awarding attorneys’ fees in patent litigation under 35 U.S.C. §285. That standard required a party seeking fees to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that the case was “objectively baseless” and brought in “subjective bad faith.”

Overruling, the Court held that an “exceptional case” is “one that stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position (both the governing law and the facts of the case) or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated … considering the totality of the circumstances.” The Court also changed the standard of proof to a preponderance of the evidence.

While the fee-shifting statute applies to both parties, Octane should make it easier for patent defendants to force losing plaintiffs to pay attorneys’ fees.

Highmark v. Allcare Health Management System (April 29, 2014), a companion case to Octane, held that the standard established in Octane should be left to the discretion of the district courts rather than, as the Federal Circuit had held, be subject to de novo review on appeal.

Octane and Highmark give the district courts substantial leeway within which to decide fee awards and may impact the debate over the reform of the patent laws to curb abusive lawsuits. An important component of proposed reform legislation has been to encourage judicial fee shifting, until now a rarity. These cases may be a significant step in that direction.

That said, until the lower courts demonstrate how aggressively they will apply Octane’s fee-shifting standard, the full impact of these cases will be unclear. Adding to this uncertainty is the risk that the standard will be applied unevenly in different districts (and even from judge to judge), with little authority left to the Federal Circuit, under Highmark, to intervene and shape uniform national application.

In Nautilus v. Biosig (June 2, 2014), the Court addressed the patent statute’s requirement that patent “claims particularly point[] out and distinctly claim[] the subject matter which the inventor or a joint inventor regards as the invention.” 35 U.S.C. §112(b).

The Federal Circuit had held that a patent claim passed that threshold so long as the claim was “amenable to construction” and the claim, as construed, was not “insolubly ambiguous.” Reversing the Federal Circuit for the fourth time, the Court held that “a patent is invalid for indefiniteness if its claims, read in light of the specification delineating the patent, and the prosecution history, fail to inform, with reasonable certainty, those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention” at the time the patent was filed.

While making it easier to challenge a patent based on indefiniteness, the Court left it to the district courts to interpret and apply the standard. Nevertheless, the decision also appears to be consistent with the Court’s trend during the term: to pull in the reins on a patent system widely perceived to be out of control.

The last two cases stand out as the most complex and likely most important patent decisions of the term.

In Limelight Networks v. Akamai Technologies (June 2, 2014), the issue was whether patent infringement could occur when separate entities perform the steps of a method patent, so-called “divided infringement.”

In a controversial decision, the Federal Circuit ruled that a defendant could be liable if it “induced” several parties to jointly carry out the steps necessary for infringement, whether or not the defendant performed any of the steps itself. Reversing again, the Supreme Court held that a defendant cannot be held liable for inducing patent infringement in the absence of direct infringement, which requires that all steps of a patent be performed by a single actor. The Court was not persuaded by the argument that its holding might enable defendants to evade liability by dividing performance among multiple actors.

However, the Court noted that its ruling was based on a 2008 Federal Circuit decision establishing the single actor rule for direct infringement. The Court assumed, without deciding, that that holding was correct, implying that there might be some room for the Federal Circuit (or the Supreme Court) to modify the single actor rule on which the holding in Akamai is based. In the meantime, a divided infringement defense will be a potential loophole for defendants in industries with distributed activities.

The last and most highly awaited patent case in the 2013 term was Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l (June 19, 2014). At issue was whether claims directed to a computer-implemented financial process were patent-eligible subject matter.

While many in the patent community feared (or hoped) that the decision would render software and business method inventions unpatentable, the Court was careful to avoid that outcome. Rather, it held that, like laws of nature and natural phenomena, “abstract ideas” — such as the business practice in Alice — must contain a sufficient “inventive concept” to “transform” the idea into a patent-eligible application. However, that cannot be achieved solely with a generic computer implementation. In Alice, the claims amounted to “‘nothing significantly more’ than an instruction to apply the abstract idea,” using some “unspecified, generic computer.” That was “not ‘enough’ to transform an abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.”

While Alice did not create a per se exclusion for software and business processes, these categories will face heightened scrutiny in both prosecution and enforcement. But application of Alice will be complicated by minimal guidance on what constitutes an “abstract idea.” While using a general purpose computer to implement an abstract idea will not achieve patent-eligibility, software that improves a physical process or the functioning of the computer itself may provide the “something more” identified by the Court as a requirement to transform an abstract concept into patent-eligible subject matter.

However, those distinctions were left to the lower courts to resolve on a case-by-case basis.

Copyright

In Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the first of two copyright cases decided in the 2013 term (May 19, 2014), a 6-3 Court reversed the 9th Circuit, holding that the copyright statute’s three-year “rolling” statute of limitations (17 U.S.C. §507) could not be shortened by the common law doctrine of laches. However, an unreasonable, prejudicial delay in filing suit may be relevant to awarding equitable relief and damages based on the infringer’s profits, making it less likely that the ruling will spark a flood of hitherto dormant copyright suits.

The second copyright ruling, ABC v. Aereo (June 25, 2014), involved the legality of Aereo’s system of using micro-antennas and individual digital copies to stream over-the-air TV on the Internet. Reversing the 2nd Circuit, a unanimous Court held that Aereo’s streaming service violated the copyright statute’s public performance right. The Court rejected Aereo’s argument that it was legally indistinguishable from a TV antenna/DVR supplier, holding instead that Aereo transmitted a public performance through “multiple, discrete transmissions,” and that Aereo was substantially similar to cable TV companies, which are required to pay royalties to retransmit TV broadcasts.

The impact of the decision on cloud computing remains to be seen, as does the accuracy of the three-justice dissent’s warning that the rationale of the case will “sow confusion for years to come.”

Lanham Act

In Lexmark Int’l v. Static Control (March 25, 2014) the Court unanimously reversed the 6th Circuit’s holding that Static Control could not proceed with a false advertising counterclaim against Lexmark under §43(a) of the Lanham Act because the parties were not direct competitors. The Court announced a new, two-part test: (1) Is the claim within the “zone of interests” protected by the Lanham Act? (2) Did the alleged conduct proximately cause the alleged injury? To meet the second part of the test, a plaintiff must plead “economic or reputational injury flowing directly from the deception wrought by the defendant’s advertising,” and that the deception causes consumers to withhold business from the plaintiff.

The ruling eliminates circuit conflicts and liberalizes standing under federal false advertising law.

In POM Wonderful v. Coca-Cola (June 12, 2014), another false advertising case, POM complained that the label for Coca-Cola’s “pomegranate blueberry” juice blend was deceptive and misleading, in violation of the Lanham Act.

The 9th Circuit held that POM’s claim was precluded by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which regulates the misbranding of food by means of false labeling. The Court reversed, holding that the federal law was not a safe harbor from the Lanham Act, and, therefore, food and drink labels are subject to competitor claims under the act.

The extent to which the ruling will lead to an increase in false advertising lawsuits over food and drink labeling remains to be seen.

"Bingo-With-a-Computer" Patent Doesn't Survive Alice

It would be difficult to find a more straightforward application of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank International (June 14, 2014) than the Federal Circuit’s August 26th decision in Planet Bingo, LLC  v. VKGS LLC (Fed. Cir. August 26, 2014) (non-precedential).

While practitioners and observers of patent law seemed to agree that Alice didn’t spell doom for software and business method patents, it was clear that it did mark the end for patents that do nothing more than recite a generic computerized implementation of an abstract idea.

While it is true that a patent may be obtained for “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof” (link), the Supreme Court has held, in a series of decisions, that there is an implicit exception to the patent statute: laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable.

In Alice the Court held that “abstract ideas” are not patentable unless they contain an “‘inventive concept’ sufficient to ‘transform’ the claimed abstract idea into a patent-eligible application.” While the precise line between an impermissibly abstract idea and a patentable process remained undefined in Alice (and may never be fully defined), one thing seems clear: once an invention is identified as an abstract idea, a generic computer implementation of that idea is not patentable.

Planet Bingo filed its patent application in 2000, long before the decision in Alice, and it was awarded the patent in 2002. The  system described in the patent allows players to select their own numbers and store them for later use, allows players to print off game tickets at the Bingo-playing site with those pre-selected numbers, and enables Bingo hall operators to track and validate these sets of numbers.

Higgins & Jeong

However, obtaining a patent and enforcing it are two different things, and Planet Bingo ran headlong into a defense of patent ineligibility when it brought suit to enforce the patent against a competitor in federal district court in Michigan in 2012 (apparently only one of many cases filed by Planet Bingo). The federal district court declared the patent invalid under the Federal Circuit’s holding in Alice, and the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Alice sealed Planet Bingo’s fate when it appealed to the Federal Circuit.

In one of the first of what is likely to be many cases invalidating patents under Alice the Federal Circuit identified the steps set forth in the patent as an abstract idea because they are “mental steps which can be carried out by a human using pen and paper.” Furthermore, the Federal Circuit observed, these steps  can be “carried out in existing computers long in use.” The patent lacked the “inventive concept” essential to transform the patent’s ideas into a patent eligible invention. Accordingly, the patent was held invalid.

For a similar case invalidating a patent that claimed a system of computerized meal planning which the court described as a “computer program that allows the user to create meals from a database of food objects, … to change those meals by adding or subtracting food objects, and to view the dietary impact of changes to those meals on a visual display,” see DietGoal Innovations LLC v. Bravo Media LLC (S.D.N.Y. July 8, 2014) (patent “recites nothing more than the abstract concept of selecting meals for the day, according to one’s particular dietary goals and food preferences”).  This case also includes a helpful summary of the evolution of patent-eligibility in the Supreme Court from 1972 to 2014.

Seventh Circuit Finds That Copyright Protection for Sherlock Holmes "Character" Has Expired

It may come as a surprise to some readers that fictional characters are protected by copyright law.  Even if the actual words used to describe a character are not copied, a “well delineated” or “especially distinctive” character may  receive copyright protection. Prominent examples from decided court cases include Rocky (under-appreciated, sullen, heroic boxer) and James Bond (British accent, tuxedos, “license to kill,” “stirred not shaken”). Unlike stock/stereotypical characters, Rocky and Bond have specific character traits and characteristics that entitle their creators (or owners) to claim copyright in these fictional characters. The more the character has unique, identifiable traits and plays a central role in the work in which the character appears, the stronger the copyright protection permitted by the courts. (If you’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy, “Rocket Raccoon” is a classic example of a protectible character).

Who then, could be more entitled to a “character copyright” than the solitary, tobacco and cocaine-loving, deductive genius-detective Sherlock Holmes, one of the most popular and enduring fictional characters of the last century?* Clearly this character, as conceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in works published between 1887 and 1927 meets this legal standard.

*[note] And don’t forget Dr. John H. Watson, who also was almost certainly a copyright-protected character.

Today, whatever copyright remains in the 56 stories and 4 novels published by Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes is owned by the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., and the Doyle Estate has in the past, quite properly, sought royalties for the publication of these works and use of the Holmes character. However, under U.S. copyright law the copyright in the 4 novels and 46 of the 56 stories (all published before 1923) have expired, leaving only the 10 post-1923 stories covered by U.S. copyright protection.

Enter Leslie Klinger, who sought to publish an anthology of contemporary stories that used the Holmes “character.” The Doyle Estate made it clear that if he did this it would lead to legal action; the Estate took the position that because 10 stories were still under copyright, its copyright in the Holmes character continued to be protected by copyright. Klinger couldn’t get his anthology published with this legal threat hanging over him, so he brought suit to challenge the Estate, and the case ended up before a 3-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The decision, which concluded that the Holmes’ character had entered the public domain by reason of the pre-1923 publications, was written by the inimitable Judge Richard Posner, an erudite, famous (among legal-types) 7th Circuit  judge.

Klinger’s argument was simple: if the character was created in the pre-1923 works and those works had entered the public domain, the Holmes character was also in the public domain. The Doyle Estate argued to the contrary, asserting that Holmes was a “complex” character  whose full complexity was not revealed until the post-1923 stories were published, and therefore the character should remain under copyright until those stories enter the public domain. In other words, because the Holmes character continued to be developed after 1923 his character remains under copyright protection. The Doyle Estate also described this as the difference between a “round” and a “flat” character, characters that evolve in a series of works (round characters) and those who do not (flat characters).

The Seventh Circuit didn’t come close to buying the Doyle Estate’s argument. While some minor aspects of Holmes’ character evolved in the post-1923 works (for example, he developed a more favorable attitude toward dogs), at most these new features in the in-copyright stories would be protected.  However, this would not serve to extend the copyright in the character features published in the works that are now out of copyright and in the public domain:

From the outset of the series of Arthur Conan Doyle stories and novels that began in 1887 Holmes and Watson were distinctive characters and therefore copyrightable. They were “incomplete” only in the sense that Doyle might want to (and later did) add additional features to their portrayals. The resulting somewhat altered characters were derivative works, the additional features of which that were added in the ten late stories being protected by the copyrights on those stories. The alterations do not revive the expired copyrights on the original characters.  . . .

With the net effect on creativity of extending the copyright protection of literary characters to the extraordinary lengths urged by the estate so uncertain, and no legal grounds suggested for extending copyright protection beyond the limits fixed by Congress, the estate’s appeal borders on the quixotic. The spectre of perpetual, or at least nearly perpetual, copyright … looms, once one realizes that the Doyle estate is seeking 135 years (1887-2022) of copyright protection for the character of Sherlock Holmes as depicted in the first Sherlock Holmes story.

This, however, was not the end of the matter. Mr. Klinger sought the attorney’s fees he incurred in defending against this appeal, and in a decision dated August 4, 2014, the Seventh Circuit (again in an opinion written by Judge Posner), awarded him approximately $30,000 in fees. It is well known that Judge Posner is critical of owners of intellectual propertty who extort small sums from defendants who may not be infringing, but who chose to pay a small amount in settlement rather than a large sum for a successful defense. Judge Posner, writing for the same 3-judge panel, stated -

The Doyle estate’s business strategy is plain: charge a modest license fee for which there is no legal basis, in the hope that the “rational” writer or publisher asked for the fee will pay it rather than incur a greater cost, in legal expenses, in challenging the legality of the demand. … [Klinger] performed a public service—and with substantial risk to himself, …. The willingness of someone in Klinger’s position to sue rather than pay Doyle’s estate a modest license fee is important because it injects risk into the estate’s business model. As a result of losing the suit, the estate has lost its claim to own copyrights in characters in the Sherlock Holmes stories published by Arthur Conan Doyle before 1923. For exposing the estate’s unlawful business strategy, Klinger deserves a reward but asks only to break even. . . .It’s time the estate, in its own self-interest, changed its business model.

While Klinger won before the Seventh Circuit, this case may not be over – The Doyle Estate has indicated it intends to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Klinger v. Conan-Doyle Estate, Ltd. (7th Cir. June 16, 2014)(liability)

Klinger v. Conan-Doyle Estate, Ltd. (7th Cir. August 4, 2014) (attorney’s fees)