My selections for the top copyright cases of the year.

“Dark Horse”

Marcus Gray had sued Katy Perry for copyright infringement, claiming that her “Dark Horse” song unlawfully copied portions of his song, “Joyful Noise.” The district court held that the disputed series of eight notes appearing in Gray’s song were not “particularly unique or rare,” and therefore were not protected against infringement. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that the series of eight notes was not sufficiently original and creative to receive copyright protection. Gray v. Hudson.

“Shape of You”

Across the pond, another music copyright infringement lawsuit was tossed. This one involved Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Sam Chokri’s “Oh Why.” In this case, the judge refused to infer from the similarities in the two songs that copyright infringement had occurred. The judge ruled that the portion of the song as to which copying had been claimed was “so short, simple, commonplace and obvious in the context of the rest of the song that it is not credible that Mr. Sheeran sought out inspiration from other songs to come up with it.” Sheeran v. Chokri.

Instagram images

Another case out of California, this one involves a lawsuit filed by photographers against Instagram, alleging secondary copyright infringement. The photographers claim that Instagram’s embedding tool facilitates copyright infringement by users of the website. The district court judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying he was bound by the so-called “server test” the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals announced in Perfect 10 v. Amazon. The server test says, in effect, that a website does not unlawfully “display” a copyrighted image if the image is stored on the original site’s server and is merely embedded in a search result that appears on a user’s screen. The photographers have an appeal pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the Court to reconsider its decision in Perfect 10. Courts in other jurisdictions have rejected Perfect 10 v. Amazon. The Court now has the option to either overrule Perfect 10 and allow the photographers’ lawsuit to proceed, or to re-affirm it, thereby creating a circuit split that could eventually lead to U.S. Supreme Court review. Hunley v. Instagram.

Tattoos

Is reproducing a copyrighted image in a tattoo fair use? That is a question at issue in a case pending in New York. Photographer Jeffrey Sedlik took a photograph of musician Miles Davis. Later, a tattoo artist allegedly traced a printout of it to create a stencil to transfer to human skin as a tattoo. Sedlik filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Both parties moved for summary judgment. The judge analyzed the claims using the four “fair use” factors. Although the ultimate ruling was that fact issues remained to be decided by a jury, the court issued some important rulings in the course of making that ruling. In particular, the court ruled that affixing an image to skin is not necessarily a protected “transformative use” of an image. According to the court, it is for a jury to decide whether the image at issue in a particular case has been changed significantly enough to be considered “transformative.” It will be interesting to see how this case ultimately plays out, especially if it is still pending when the United States Supreme Court announces its decision in the Warhol case (See below). Sedlik v. Von Drachenberg.

Digital libraries

The book publishers’ lawsuit against Internet Archive, about which I wrote in a previous blog post, is still at the summary judgment stage. Its potential future implications are far-reaching. It is a copyright infringement lawsuit that book publishers filed in the federal district court for the Southern District of New York. The gravamen of the complaint is that Internet Archive allegedly has scanned over a million books and has made them freely available to the public via an Internet website without securing a license or permission from the copyright rights-holders. The case will test the “controlled digital lending” theory of fair use that was propounded in a white paper published by David R. Hansen and Kyle K. Courtney. They argued that distributing digitized copies of books by libraries should be regarded as the functional equivalent of lending physical copies of books to library patrons. Parties and amici have filed briefs in support of motions for summary judgment. An order on the motions is expected soon. The case is Hachette Book Group et al. v. Internet Archive.

Copyright registration

In Fourth Estate Public Benefits Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC, 139 S. Ct. 881, 889 (2019), the United States Supreme Court interpreted 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) to mean that a copyright owner cannot file an infringement claim in federal court without first securing either a registration certificate or an official notice of denial of registration from the Copyright Office. In an Illinois Law Review article, I argued that this imposes an unduly onerous burden on copyright owners and that Congress should amend the Copyright Act to abolish the requirement. Unfortunately, Congress has not done that. As I said in a previous blog post, Congressional inaction to correct a harsh law with potentially unjust consequences often leads to exercises of the judicial power of statutory interpretation to ameliorate those consequences. Unicolors v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz.

Unicolors, owner of the copyrights in various fabric designs, sued H&M Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), alleging copyright infringement. The jury rendered a verdict in favor of Unicolor, but H&M moved for judgment as a matter of law. H&M argued that Unicolors had failed to satisfy the requirement of obtaining a registration certificate prior to commencing suit. Although Unicolors had obtained a registration, H&M argued that the registration was not a valid one. Specifically, H&M argued that Unicolors had improperly applied to register multiple works with a single application. According to 37 CFR § 202.3(b)(4) (2020), a single application cannot be used to register multiple works unless all of the works in the application were included in the same unit of publication. The 31 fabric designs, H&M contended, had not all been first published at the same time in a single unit; some had been made available separately exclusively to certain customers. Therefore, they could not properly be registered together as a unit of publication.

The district court denied the motion, holding that a registration may be valid even if contains inaccurate information, provided the registrant did not know the information was inaccurate. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Court held that characterizing the group of works as a “unit of publication” in the registration application was a mistake of law, not a mistake of fact. The Court applied the traditional rule of thumb that ignorance of the law is not an excuse, in essence ruling that although a mistake of fact in a registration application might not invalidate the registration for purposes of the pre-litigation registration requirement, a mistake of law in an application will.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari. It reversed the Ninth Circuit Court’s reversal, thereby allowing the infringement verdict to stand notwithstanding the improper registration of the works together as a unit of publication rather than individually.

It is hazardous to read too much into the ruling in this case. Copyright claimants certainly should not interpret it to mean that they no longer need to bother with registering a copyright before trying to enforce it in court, or that they do not need to concern themselves with doing it properly. The pre-litigation registration requirement still stands (in the United States), and the Court has not held that it condones willful blindness of legal requirements. Copyright claimants ignore them at their peril.

Andy Warhol, Prince Transformer

I wrote about the Warhol case in a previous blog post. Basically, it is a copyright infringement case alleging that Lynn Goldsmith took a photograph of Prince in her studio and that Andy Warhol later based a series of silkscreen prints and pencil illustrations on it without a license or permission. The Andy Warhol Foundation sought a declaratory judgment that Warhol’s use of the photograph was “fair use.” Goldsmith counterclaimed for copyright infringement. The district court ruled in favor of Warhol and dismissed the photographer’s infringement claim. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the district court misapplied the four “fair use” factors and that the derivative works Warhol created do not qualify as fair use. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and heard oral arguments in October, 2022. A decision is expected next year.

Because this case gives the United States Supreme Court an opportunity to bring some clarity to the extremely murky “transformative use” area of copyright law, it is not only one of this year’s most important copyright cases, but it very likely will wind up being one of the most important copyright cases of all time. Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith.

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