May 30, 2024

Annemarie Bridy

Annemarie Bridy has been a member of the faculty of the University of Idaho College of Law since 2007. Professor Bridy teaches Contracts, Copyrights, Introduction to Intellectual Property, and Cyberspace Law. Before joining the faculty, Professor Bridy was an associate with the lawfirm of Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads in Philadelphia, where she practiced in the area of complex commercial litigation. Bridy holds a B.A from Boston University, a M.A from the University of California, Irvine, a Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine, and a J.D. from Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law.

The Decline of DVD-by-Mail, or Further Thoughts on the Digital Death of Copyright's First Sale Doctrine

Netflix reported a second-quarter profit last week as customer demand continues to drive a transition in the company’s primary delivery model from DVD-by-mail to Internet streaming. According to The New York Times, “[t]he company’s net losses among DVD-by-mail subscriptions outpaced its gains in net streaming subscriptions in the United States, reflecting the continued challenge of […]

Opening Government: On the Limits of FOIA and the Metaphor of Transparency

At a recent symposium (“Piracy and the Politics of Policing: Legislating and Enforcing Copyright Law”) sponsored by the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal, I was invited to respond to an excellent paper by David Levine on secrecy, national security, and the denial of public access to documents from the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiation […]

"Stolen" LinkedIn Profiles and the Misappropriation of Ideas

The common law tort of “hot news” misappropriation has been dying a slow and justified death. Hot news misappropriation is the legal doctrine on which news outlets like the Associated Press have repeatedly relied over the years to try to prevent third-party dissemination of factual information gathered at the outlets’ expense. Last June, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a blow to the hot news doctrine when it held that financial firms engaged in producing research reports and recommendations concerning publicly traded securities could not prevent a third party website from publishing news of the recommendations soon after their initial release. The rationale for the court’s decision was that state law claims of hot news misappropriation can only very rarely survive federal preemption by the Copyright Act, which excludes facts from the scope of copyright protection. The rule that facts are not eligible for copyright (called the fact-expression dichotomy) is at the heart of the copyright system and serves the interests of democracy by promoting the unfettered dissemination of important news to the populace. Creative arrangements of facts can be protected under copyright law, but individual facts cannot.

Given the declining fortunes of the hot news doctrine, I was a little surprised to discover a recent case out of Pennsylvania called Eagle v. Morgan, in which the parties are fighting over ownership of a LinkedIn account containing the plaintiff’s profile and her professional connections. The defendant, Eagle’s former employer, asserted a state law counterclaim for misappropriation of ideas. Ideas, as it happens, are—like facts—excluded from the scope of federal copyright protection for a compelling policy reason: If we permit the monopolization of ideas themselves, we will stifle the communal intellectual progress that intellectual property laws exist to promote. Copyright law thus protects only the expression of ideas, not ideas themselves. (This principle is known as the idea-expression dichotomy.) Accordingly, section 102(b) of the Copyright Act denies copyright protection “to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied.” The statute really could not be clearer.

In its opinion denying Eagle’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, the trial court did not consider whether the state law tort of misappropriation of ideas is federally preempted by the Copyright Act, which seems to me to be a really important legal question. The court explained that a claim for misappropriation of an idea in Pennsylvania has two elements: “(1) the plaintiff had an idea that was novel and concrete and (2) the idea was misappropriated by the defendant.” To determine whether a misappropriation has occurred, the court further explained, Pennsylvania law requires consideration of three factors:

(1) the plaintiff “has made substantial investment of time, effort, and money into creating the thing misappropriated such that the court can characterize the ‘thing’ as a kind of property right,” (2) the defendant “has appropriated the ‘thing’ at little or no cost such that the court can characterize the defendant’s actions as ‘reaping where it has not sown,’” and (3) the defendant “has injured the plaintiff by the misappropriation.”

Setting aside the oddity of classifying digital information as a “thing,” the first of these factors collides head on with the Supreme Court’s clear repudiation in Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service of the “sweat of the brow” theory of intellectual property.

In Feist, the Court held that “sweat of the brow” as a justification for propertizing information “eschew[s] the most fundamental axiom of copyright law—that no one may copyright facts or ideas.” Given copyright law’s express prohibition on the propertization of ideas, there is a strong case to be made that state law claims for misappropriation of ideas are in direct conflict with both the letter and spirit of the federal copyright scheme. On that basis, they are akin to claims of hot news misappropriation, and they should likewise be treated as preempted.

Don't Regulate the Internet. No, Wait. Regulate the Internet.

When Congress considered net neutrality legislation in the form of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008 (H.R. 5353), representatives of corporate copyright owners weighed in to oppose government regulation of the Internet. They feared that such regulation might inhibit their private efforts to convince ISPs to help them enforce copyrights online through various forms of broadband traffic management (e.g., filtering and bandwidth shaping). “Our view,” the RIAA’s Mitch Bainwol testified at a Congressional hearing, “is that the marketplace is generally a better mechanism than regulation for addressing such complex issues as how to address online piracy, and we believe the marketplace should be given the chance to succeed.” And the marketplace presumably did succeed, at least from the RIAA’s point of view, when ISPs and corporate rights owners entered into a Memorandum of Understanding last summer to implement a standardized, six-strikes graduated response protocol for curbing domestic illegal P2P file sharing. Chalk one up for the market.

What, then, should we make of the RIAA’s full-throated support for the Senate’s pending PROTECT IP Act (S. 968) and its companion bill in the House, SOPA (H.R. 3261)? PROTECT IP and SOPA are bills that would regulate the technical workings of the Internet by requiring operators of domain name servers to block user access to “rogue websites”—defined in PROTECT IP as sites “dedicated to infringing activities”—by preventing the domain names for those sites from resolving to their corresponding IP addresses. In a recent RIAA press release on PROTECT IP, the RIAA’s Bainwol praised the draft legislation, asserting the need for—you guessed it—new government regulation of the Internet: “[C]urrent laws have not kept pace with criminal enterprises that set up rogue websites overseas to escape accountability.” So much, I guess, for giving the marketplace the chance to succeed.

As the Social Science Research Council’s groundbreaking 2011 report on global piracy concluded, the marketplace could succeed in addressing the problem of piracy beyond U.S. borders if corporate copyright owners were willing to address global disparities in the accessibility of legal digital goods. As the authors explain, “[t]he flood of legal media goods available in high-income countries over the past two decades has been a trickle in most parts of the world.” Looking at the statistics on piracy in the developing world from the consumption side rather than the production side, the SSRC authors assert that what developing markets want and need are “price and service innovations” that have already been rolled out in the developed world. Who is in a better position to deliver such innovations, through the global marketplace, than the owners of copyrights in digital entertainment and information goods? Why not give the marketplace another chance to succeed, particularly when the alternative presented is a radical policy intrusion into the fundamental operation of the Internet?

The RIAA’s political strategy in the war on piracy has been alternately to oppose and support government regulation of the Internet, depending on what’s expedient. I wonder if rights owners and the trade groups that represent them experience any sense of cognitive dissonance when they advocate against something at one moment and for it a little while later—to the same audience, on the same issue.

The Digital Death of Copyright's First Sale Doctrine

The legal media’s attention has been focused this past week on Supreme Court oral arguments in Golan v. Holder, an important copyright case involving the power of Congress to “restore” private rights in creative works that are already in the public domain. In this post, I’d like to focus on an important copyright case that won’t be argued in the Supreme Court. On October 3, the Supreme Court declined to review Vernor v. Autodesk, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision involving the applicability of copyright’s first sale doctrine to transactions involving software and other digital information goods.

The first sale doctrine is the provision in copyright law that gives the purchaser of a copy of a copyrighted work the right to sell or otherwise dispose of that copy without the permission of the copyright owner. If there were no first sale doctrine, there would be no free market for used books, CDs, or DVDs, because the copyright owner’s right of distribution would reach beyond the first sale, all the way down the stream of commerce. Without the first sale doctrine, movie rental services like Netflix and Redbox wouldn’t be able to lend DVDs without authorization from studios, and you wouldn’t be able to lend the bestseller you just finished to a friend without authorization from the book’s author or publisher. Along with fair use, the first sale doctrine promotes public access to culture and information by functioning as a crucial limit on the right of a copyright owner to control the disposition of a copyrighted work. A world without the first sale doctrine in it is a world I wouldn’t want to live in, but it’s one that’s quickly taking shape, thanks in part to legal decisions like the one in Vernor.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Vernor significantly erodes the first sale doctrine with respect to software and other mass-licensed digital goods. The plaintiff in the case, Timothy Vernor, bought several copies of an AutoCad software package from a direct customer of the software publisher. Vernor then resold the copies on eBay, only to be accused of having infringed the software publisher’s copyrights. He sued, seeking a declaration from the court that his sale of the software on eBay was protected by the first sale doctrine because the software publisher’s distribution right was exhausted by its “first sale” of the copies to its direct customer. By Vernor’s logic, software should be able to be purchased and resold in the same way that a book can be purchased and resold. Why should the two be treated any differently under copyright law, after all? The buyer of a book owns her copy of the book as personal property, and her ownership of that individual copy does not at all interfere with the author’s ownership of the copyright in the work. Once the author places a particular copy of the work into the stream of commerce, the author loses the right to control the fate of that copy; the author retains, however, all of the rights the statute gives her in the copyrighted work itself, including the exclusive right to make and sell new copies of it.

The Copyright Act makes an explicit distinction between ownership of a copy of a copyrighted work–whether that copy is printed on paper or burned onto an optical disk or stored in a computer’s memory–and ownership of the copyright in the work. The copy is tangible property owned by the purchaser; the copyrighted work embodied in the copy is intangible property owned by the author. A copy is a copy, the work is the work, and never the twain shall meet. In Timothy Vernor’s case, however, the publisher of the AutoCad software argued that it never actually sold the copies Vernor bought, so there was no “first sale” for copyright purposes. Under the software publisher’s logic, which the Ninth Circuit adopted in the case, both the copy and the intellectual property embodied in the copy were only licensed, and quite restrictively so, pursuant to the terms of a mass end user license agreement (EULA); nothing was ever sold, despite the retail transaction that put copies of the software into the hands of the initial purchaser, and despite the downstream transaction that put those copies into Timothy Vernor’s hands.

Existing copyright case law makes it clear that digital copies of works, even those stored only ephemerally in RAM, are “copies” within the meaning of the Copyright Act. Moreover, the the Copyright Act is clear on its face that there is a difference between ownership of a copy of a work and ownership of the work embodied in the copy. Decisions like the Ninth Circuit’s in Vernor v. Autodesk, however, permit copyright owners to conflate the copy and the work to the detriment of consumers in cases involving digital goods. Under Vernor, software copyright owners not only own the work embodied in every copy of a program they sell, they own every copy, too. Consumers are left with both empty pockets and empty hands.

As the transition from physical to streaming or cloud-based digital distribution continues, further divorcing copyrighted works from their traditional tangible embodiments, it will increasingly be the case that consumers do not own the information goods they buy (or, rather, think they’ve bought). Under the court’s decision in Vernor, all a copyright owner has to do to effectively repeal the statutory first sale doctrine is draft a EULA that (1) specifies that the user is granted a license; (2) significantly restricts the user’s ability to transfer the software; and (3) imposes notable use restrictions. Sad to say, it’s about as easy as falling off a log.