Reversing Righthaven

The court system issued another stunning rebuke of Righthaven and its business model, as an Electronic Frontier Foundation press release reports:

In a decision with likely wide-ranging impact, a judge in Las Vegas today dismissed as a sham an infringement case filed by copyright troll Righthaven LLC. The judge ruled that Righthaven did not have the legal authorization to bring a copyright lawsuit against the political forum Democratic Underground, because it had never owned the copyright in the first place. [emphasis added]

This is a big win for bloggers, and the news gets even worse for Righthaven:

As part of his ruling today, the judge ordered Righthaven to show why it should not be sanctioned for misrepresentations to the court.

More coverage at Techdirt.

I guess we’re starting to get that copyright law clarity I was hoping for

Head in the cloud

Amazon launched its Cloud Player yesterday which, as Wired explains,

can stream your music library to any web browser or Android mobile device. Cloud Player also allows you to download files and create playlists through its web-based interface.

So Amazon lets you store your music on a remote hard drive and stream it to local devices?  Sounds pretty straightforward.  Of course, the record labels don’t think so.  From Ars Technica:

We wondered aloud how Amazon managed to strike such an impressive licensing deal with the record labels, given the fact that Apple seems to still be working out the details for its own digital locker service. It turns out that Amazon hasn’t struck a deal, and seems to be hoping that the record companies will be the ones to blink.

“[W]e do not need a license to store music in Cloud Drive,” Griffin added in an e-mail to Ars. “The functionality of saving MP3s to Cloud Drive is the same as if a customer were to save their music to an external hard drive or even iTunes.”

That’s certainly not what the music industry seems to think, though—at least in regards to Cloud Player. In an interview with Reuters, Sony Music spokesperson Liz Young said the company hoped for a license deal but that it was keeping its “legal options open.”

Amazon certainly has made a gutsy play here.  The major labels are currently embroiled in a lawsuit against MP3tunes for providing essentially the same service as Amazon.  According to an amici curiae brief (PDF) in that case, the primary legal issue turns on whether or not Internet streaming necessarily constitutes a “public performance” (which would violate copyright owners’ rights unless licensed).  There is a powerful argument that it does not:

MP3tunes does not transmit music to the general public, nor to all of its subscribers. A particular work in a particular locker will only be transmitted to a user who has placed it there—in other words, after he or she has averred to MP3tunes that she either legally owns the file and have uploaded it to her locker, or that she has legal authorization to access the file on the Web and has sideloaded it into her locker. The subset of MP3tunes users who have uploaded or sideloaded any one particular track (and thus have stated to MP3tunes that they are authorized to do so) still falls far short of the “public” required by the transmit clause.

Of course, the simple fact that it has become necessary to make this legal argument illustrates just how broken copyright law is.  The statute is long, complicated, and muddled enough to lend at least some plausibility to virtually any argument imaginable.  Even an argument claiming that storing one’s own music on a private, password-protected server for convenience violates the letter (if not the spirit) of copyright law.

Stay tuned…

Updated 3/31/2011: Ars Technica has a follow-up piece today that quotes from their interview with MP3tunes’ CEO Michael Robertson (bio from his blog):

The word “streaming” and the word “download” are nowhere in copyright law.  It may be a very logical, common sense position, but all that matters is what the law says. Can you store your own music? Can you listen from anywhere? What if your wife or kids want to listen to it? All those things are completely unchartered [sic] territory.

Of course, as we routinely point out around here, “logic” and “common sense” have absolutely nothing to do with the current state of U.S. copyright law.

40,000 ways to file a lawsuit

How do you file lawsuits against 40,000 people you think are infringing your copyrights?  Sounds like the answer is “one at a time”:

Thousands of unnamed “John Does” in P2P file sharing lawsuits filed in California, Washington DC, Texas, and West Virginia have been severed, effectively dismissing over 40,000 defendants. The plaintiffs in these cases must now re-file against almost all of the Does individually rather than suing them en mass.

Let’s unpack this.  Copyright owners often don’t know the names of people they suspect of using the Internet to infringe their works — they only know that such-and-such an Internet protocol address allegedly accessed a pirated file of their content.  In order to match that address with a particular person, they often have go to court to compel an Internet service provider to tell them what account/person is associated with that address.  They can only sue individuals once they have actual names.

Copyright owners have been in the habit of suing thousands of “John Doe” IP addresses in one lawsuit and then using those names to settle quickly:

These rulings may have a significant impact on the copyright trolls’ business model, which relies on being able to sue thousands of Does at once with a minimum of administrative expense. The cost of filing suit against each Doe may prove prohibitively expensive to plaintiffs’ attorneys who are primarily interested in extracting quick, low-hassle settlements.

In my view, courts’ rejection of this tactic brings some procedural balance back to copyright infringement lawsuits.  Copyright owners often sue alleged infringers in courts that are convenient for the owner, and this can effect a substantial injustice.

Perhaps a concrete example is in order.  Let’s assume an individual defendant that (1) is unquestionably innocent and (2) lives in Iowa.  Let’s further assume the plaintiff copyright owner is a movie studio based in California who wants to sue her in Los Angeles.  As a practical matter, this defendant has a difficult choice.  Litigation is always inconvenient and expensive, but hiring a California-based attorney from Iowa and flying out to Los Angeles is probably more than a typical defendant can afford.  Under these circumstances, she may pay the studio a $2,000 settlement even though she’s innocent just to make the matter go away.  After all, it’s pretty easy to burn through $2,000 with a lawyer and travel expenses.

Given this procedural tilt favoring copyright owners, it seems only fair that they be required to file their suits one at a time.  If a copyright owner doesn’t think her claim is even worth a filing fee, she probably shouldn’t be filing that lawsuit in the first place.  Copyright was, after all, designed “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”, not to provide extra-judicial windfall profits to content owners.

Thanks to Matt Berntsen for the original link to the EFF write-up.