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Decisions in Entertainment, Media, and IP Law #1

SCOTUS declined to hear two Digital Millennium Copyright Act cases:

  • Lenz v. Universal Music Corp. After receiving a DMCA takedown request from Universal Music Group, YouTube removed a video of a baby dancing to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” that fell within the fair use defense. The Ninth Circuit held that copyright owners must reach a “good faith belief” that the material is infringing before filing a takedown request. Advocates against DMCA abuse hoped the Supreme Court would raise the easy, subjective standard to a more rigorous “objectively reasonable” belief in order to prevent censorship, but the court passed on reviewing the case.
  • EMI Christian Music Grp., Inc. v. MP3tunes, LLC. Record companies and music publishers sued a digital music storage site for copyright infringement. The jury awarded $48 million to the plaintiffs, despite the district court finding that the site had a reasonably implemented repeat infringer policy as required for safe harbor protection under 17 U.S.C. § 512. The district court then partially granted the site’s post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law, reducing the award to $12 million by reasoning that the site did not have red flag knowledge or willful blindness regarding two categories of pirated songs. Upon review, the Second Circuit reinstated the original verdict holding that a reasonable jury could find that the site did not have a reasonable repeat infringer policy, because the site did not connect takedown notices to users who repeatedly created links to that pirated content or to users who repeatedly copied that pirated content. Some copyright experts argued the Supreme Court should have taken the case, since the ruling directly conflicts with the DMCA’s “no duty to monitor” rule.

SCOTUS rules on the disparagement clause and copyright separability:

  • Matal v. Tam. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office invoked §2(a) of the Lanham Act to deny “The Slants” trademark registration, since the band’s name was deemed to be disparaging to Asians. The disparagement clause prohibited registration of terms that bring persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols into contempt or disrepute. The band, which sought to end the disparaging connotation by reclaiming the racial slur and using it in a positive and empowering way, asserted a free speech defense. Justice Alito agreed that the disparagement clause violated the First Amendment, since “speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.” The case also ended decades of Native American activism to strip the Washington Redskins of trademark protection.
  • Star Athletica LLC v. Varsity Brands Inc. Venturing into fashion law to address the widespread disagreement among the circuits, SCOTUS reviewed the separability of unprotected useful items (such as clothing) from their protected expressive elements. The fashion industry hoped for a broad definition that would protect their products under copyright, while consumer advocates hoped a narrower approach would increase competition. Clarence Thomas wrote the new test: copyright protects expression that can “be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article” so long as it qualifies as protectable expression when “imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated.” Some experts questioned whether this ruling would have the unintended consequence of expanding copyright protection to basic fashion tropes such as frequently used colors, stripes, and shapes.

Intellectual property and media law decisions from the lower courts:

  • Elliott v. Google, Inc. Google filed a cybersquatting complaint under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) when Elliott registered 763 domain names inclusive of the word “google.” After the arbitrator sided with the tech giant, Elliott filed a claim to have the trademark cancelled, arguing that it had succumbed to genericide. Genericide occurs when a trademarked brand loses protection, because it has become the generic name for the product or services it protects (e.g. aspirin). This often occurs because the trademark owner has failed to police the mark and prevent others from using its mark to identify competitor’s products or services. Although “google” is used as a verb meaning “to search the internet,” the Ninth Circuit held that Google will not lose trademark protection, because the use of “google” as a verb did not necessarily constitute generic use. The brand passed the “who-are-you/what-are-you” test, since the use of “google” as a verb is used to describe searching the internet but not to describe all search engine services as a category of products or services.
  • Corbello v. Devito. The District Court for the District of Nevada overturned a jury verdict against the Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” for copyright infringement of an unpublished autobiography, since a fair use analysis of the copying showed that only a quarter of a percent was copied from the source content. Most similarities, the court explained, were due to the fact that both works were based on actual historical events, which are not copyrightable.
  • Jordan-Benel v. Universal City Studios, Inc. Douglas Jordan-Benel sued Universal City Studios for allegedly using substantial parts of his screenplay for the basis of “The Purge” film series. The implied-in-fact contract claim was based on Universal City Studios’ failure to pay Jordan-Benel. Universal City Studios filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which was denied by the district court because the contract claim did not arise from conduct in furtherance of the right of free speech. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, and the case is expected to continue at a lower court and potentially go to trial.
  • Virginia Citizens Def. League v. Katie Couric. Katie Couric was sued for defamation in relation to a nine second pause after the reporter asked gun rights advocates a question in a documentary. The gun rights advocates claimed the footage was manipulated to falsely inform viewers that the subjects had been stumped by the question and had no basis for their opinions. The district court granted Couric’s motion to dismiss, because the interview scene was not false, since the gun rights advocates did not answer the question and “the editing simply dramatizes the sophistry” of the gun rights advocates.

About: DJ turned JD highlights the latest legal updates in the entertainment and media industries, intellectual property, the internet and social media. The blawg is compiled and curated by Bobby Desmond. After working as a radio personality, Bobby enrolled in the University of Florida Levin College of Law with hopes of pursuing an in-house legal career at an entertainment or media corporation. He has held legal internship positions at PBS with America’s Public Television Stations in Arlington, VA and at AMC Networks in New York, NY. He expects to graduate in May 2018.