Category Archives: Copyright Infringement

Does the New Netflix Movie “Enola Holmes” Infringe the Copyright in Sherlock Holmes?

A recently filed lawsuit in federal court in New Mexico raises the question of whether the new Netflix film “Enola Holmes,” a film about Sherlock Holmes’ sister, infringes the copyright in the Sherlock Holmes character and stories owned by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate.

As reported in a June 24, 2020 article in the Hollywood Reporter (see https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/conan-doyle-estate-sues-netflix-coming-movie-sherlock-holmes-sister-1300108), the Conan Doyle Estate has sued Netflix, Legendary Pictures, Penguin Random House and others, including author Nancy Springer, whose book series forms the basis of the new movie, claiming that the Enola Holmes character and story infringe the copyright in Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character and stories.

The complicating factor for the Doyle Estate is that in 2014, the Doyle Estate lost most of its copyright rights to Sherlock Holmes when a federal appellate court ruled that all of the stories authored about the Holmes character before 1923 were in the public domain. But the ruling didn’t strip away the Doyle Estate’s copyright on the last 10 original Sherlock Holmes stories authored between 1923 and 1927.

Under well settled copyright law, only the original elements of Doyle’s last ten Holmes stories are protected by copyright. And the copyright does not protect what are known as scènes à faire, which are standard and customary plot elements standard for the works in a particular genre. Think of a car chase in a crime drama.

To try to get around the public domain and scènes à faire problems, the Estate’s complaint alleges that “After the stories that are now in the public domain, and before the Copyrighted Stories, the Great War happened . . . In World War I Conan Doyle lost his eldest son, Arthur Alleyne Kingsley. Four months later he lost his brother, Brigadier-general Innes Doyle. When Conan Doyle came back to Holmes in the Copyrighted Stories between 1923 and 1927, it was no longer enough that the Holmes character was the most brilliant rational and analytical mind. Holmes needed to be human. The character needed to develop human connection and empathy.”

And so Sherlock “became warmer,” continues the complaint, setting up the question of whether the development of feelings is something that can be protected by copyright and whether the alleged depiction of Sherlock in “Enola Holmes” is somehow derivative and therefore infringing.

It will be interesting to see how this case plays out. The estate likely will have to convince the court that the “warmer” Sherlock Holmes character in the stories still protected by copyright is expressed sufficiently differently from the colder one in the public domain stories such that the warmer character acquired protectable elements. Then, the estate also will have to prove that the warmer character in the allegedly infringing works is warmer in the same manner as the character in the works protected by the copyright.

A copy of the complaint can be found here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6956021-Sherlock.html

Photographers and Visual Artists Beware! You May Lose Exclusive Control Of Your Copyrighted Work By Posting on Social Media

Many photographers and others involved in the visual arts often post their works on Instagram and other social media sites as a way to advertise and promote themselves, showcase their works, and try to license or sell the posted works. In most cases, the posted works are protected by copyright in favor of the author.

Among the rights granted to to the author of a copyrighted work are the exclusive right to control the reproduction and copying of the work, the exclusive right to control the distribution of the work (including to license the work), and the exclusive right to control the display of the copyrighted work. In a recent case from a federal court in New York that sent shockwaves through the copyright world, the court held that a third party who “embedded” a link to a photograph posted on the public portion of Instagram did not infringe the copyright owner’s exclusive rights because the terms and conditions for the use of Instagram grant Instagram the right to sublicense works posted on the public portion of Instagram.

The case in question is Sinclair v. Ziff Davis, LLC, Case No. 18-CV-790 (KMW), decided by Judge Kimba Wood of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on April 13, 2020, often referred to as the “Mashable” case because the website that was alleged to have infringed the plaintiff’s copyright was the Mashable site.

In the Mashable case, the plaintiff was a professional photographer who owned the exclusive copyright in a photograph (the “Photograph”) titled “Child, Bride, Mother/Child Marriage in Guatemala.” The plaintiff posted a copy of the Photograph to her Instagram account, which was a “public” account, viewable by anyone.

Mashable offered the plaintiff $50.00 to license the Photograph for use in connection with an article about female photographers, which the plaintiff rejected. Mashable nevertheless featured the Photograph in its article even though the plaintiff did not give Mashable permission or consent to use the Photograph, and in fact rejected Mashable’s attempt to obtain a license.

Mashable used a technical process called “embedding” to incorporate the Photograph into its article. Embedding allows a website coder to incorporate content, such as an image, that is located on a third-party’s server, into the coder’s website. When an individual visits a website that includes an “embed code,” the user’s internet browser is directed to retrieve the embedded content from the third-party server and display it on the website. As a result of this process, the user sees the embedded content
on the website, even though the content is actually hosted on a third-party’s server, rather than on the server that hosts the website.

Judge Wood held that Mashable did not infringe the plaintiff’s copyright because the plaintiff granted Instagram the right to sublicense the Photograph when the plaintiff created her Instagram account and agreed to Instagram’s terms and conditions, and Instagram validly exercised that right by granting Mashable a sublicense to display the Photograph.

As Judge Wood explained her decision, the terms and conditions for use of the public portion of the Instagram site state that “by posting content to Instagram, the user “grant[s] to Instagram a nonexclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to the Content
that you post.” Based on this language, Judge Wood found that, because Plaintiff uploaded the Photograph to Instagram and designated it as
“public,” she agreed to allow Mashable, as Instagram’s sublicensee, to embed the Photograph in its website so there was no copyright infringement.

There are a number of important take-aways from the Mashable case:

1. Although the Mashable case involved the Instagram terms and conditions, virtually all social media sites — like Twitter, Facebook, etc. — have the same or similar terms and conditions which allow sublicensing, so the Mashable case may be extended to infringement claims based on works posted on other social media sites.

2. The Mashable case is limited to situations where the accused infringer displayed the copyrighted work by embedding the work on its website. Traditional copyright infringement analysis still will apply in those cases where there is actual copying – in other words, where the accused infringer publishes a digital copy of a copyrighted work on its website rather than just using embedding.

3. It is not clear how far the Mashable case will extend. The Mashable case is a trial court decision that has no binding effect on any other court in the United States. There have not been any cases outside the Southern District of New York that have addressed the same issue as the Mashable case. In another recent decision from the Southern District of New York on June 1, 2020 that also involved embedding a copyrighted photograph from Instagram (McGucken v. Newsweek, LLC, Case No. 19-CIV-9617 (KPF)), Judge Katherine Polk Failla confirmed the Mashable holding but refused to dismiss her case because she found there was no evidence of a sublicense between Instagram and Newsweek. The McGucken decision is interesting and curious because the facts were virtually the same as the Mashable case.

4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Instagram itself has expressly stated and made clear that users of its embedding feature don’t get licenses from Instagram to display copyrighted photographs of others.

So what does this all mean? For photographs and visual artists, the safest way to protect their copyrights is to switch their Instagram and other social media accounts to private until we have more clarity about the reach of the Mashable decision. But of course, such a switch will prevent users on the Instagram platform from seeing their content, which can be a career liability for professionals. Unfortunately, right now, Instagram does not offer an option to make content public inside the Instagram platform while disabling embedding on external websites.

For media companies and those who want to display photographs and other works posted by others on Instagram and other social media sites, the decision is clear: do not rely on the Mashable decision to shield you from liability for copyright infringement even if you intend to just embed the work. Instead, get permission from the artist to display his or her work and do not display if the artist says no.

Important Copyright Tips For Businesses

Copyrights are very powerful rights but often are not fully understood or protected by business owners.  Here are some important tips about copyrights with which all businesses should be familiar:

  1. Register: Businesses should identify and register their copyrights within 90 days of the publication of the copyrighted work.
  2. Notice:  Even though not required, we strongly recommend that businesses place an appropriate copyright notice on all copyrighted works to discourage infringement and cut off the “innocent infringer” defense.
  3. Rights: All businesses must make sure that they have the right (documented in writing) to use any copyrighted materials created by others.  Copyright issues sometimes can be hard to spot so we strongly recommend that businesses retain an experienced intellectual property attorney to conduct a periodic intellectual property audit.
  4. Agreements: All businesses must make sure they have appropriate written agreements in place with employees and other creative personnel regarding ownership and use of copyrighted materials (including, most particularly, materials created by employees and contractors) as well as agreements establishing the right to use copyrighted materials owned by others.
  5. Insurance: Businesses involved in any way in areas that involve the creation and use of copyrighted materials should explore obtaining insurance for infringement claims.  Please note that most commercial general liability policies do not cover intellectual property claims – the purchase of separate coverage usually is required.
  6. Infringement: Businesses should take seriously any infringement of its copyrighted materials as well as claims of infringement asserted by third parties.  In both situations, the business should promptly consult with an experienced copyright lawyer to determine an appropriate and cost-effective course of action.

A Brief History Of Copyright Litigation About Popular Songs

Many of our readers may have read with interest the recent media about the copyright litigation concerning Led Zeppelin’s iconic “Stairway to Heaven” where the owners of the rights to a song entitled “Taurus” put out by the 60s band Spirit have sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement by the song “Stairway to Heaven.”  This is just the latest in a long line of lawsuits involving alleged infringement and plagiarism of the rights to popular songs.  Accusations of musical plagiarism are a recurring phenomenon, but only rarely end up being heard in formal legal proceedings. Many readers will remember the 2015 case where a jury awarded damages of $7.2 million against Robin Thicke and Pharrel Williams for infringing the copyright in Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”  These artists settled out of court because their songs too closely resembled songs by other artists:

 The Doors’ “Hello I Love You” (1968) – The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” (1965).

Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (1969) – Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love” (1962).

George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (1970) – The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (1962).

Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (1978) – Jorge Ben’s “Taj Mahal” (1972).

Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” (1980) – Keith Jarrett’s “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours” (1974).

Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” (1984) – Huey Lewis & The News’ “I Want a New Drug” (1984).

Hootie & The Blowfish’s “Tangled Up in Blue” (1995) – Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” (1975).

Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” (1997) – Des’ree’s “Feels So High” (1991).

The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” (1998) – The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” (1965).

Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” (2007) – The Rubinoos’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” (1979).

Here are some sound-alike songs where copying has been rumored but have not resulted in formal legal cases:

Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (1970) – Moby Grape’s “Never” (1968)

Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (1974) – Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” (1964)

Steve Miller Band’s “Rock n’ Me” (1976) – Free’s “Alright Now” (1970)

The Eagles’ “Hotel California” (1976) – Jethro Tull’s “We Used to Know” (1969)

Robbie Dupree’s “Steal Away” (1980) – The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” (1979)

Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” (1987) – Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” (1986)

R.E.M.’s “Hope” (1998) – Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” (1968)

Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California” (2006) – Tom Petty “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993)

Bruce Springsteen’s “Radio Nowhere” (2007) – Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” (1982)

Prince’s “Guitar” (2007) – U2’s “I Will Follow” (1980)

 

Given the enduring popularity of “Stairway to Heaven,” the potential infringement damages could be massive – it will be interesting to see if Led Zeppelin chooses to litigate or settle out of court.  Stay tuned.

 

 

While The Scope Of Copyright Protection Is Broad, Two Recent Cases Involving Yoga Positions And Recipes Show That There Are Limits

In a recent post in this space, we commented on several cases that illustrated that the scope of copyright protection is extremely broad (see here: https://affinitylaw.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/three-cheers-for-the-wood-flooring-recent-cases-confirm-copyright-protection-for-cheerleader-uniforms-and-wood-flooring-pattern).  Two recent cases show that while copyright protection is broad, there still are limits:

Bikram’s Yoga College of India, L.P. v. Evolution Yoga, LLC:  In this well-publicized case, the issue was whether a sequence of 26 yoga positions and two breathing exercises practiced in a specific order, called the “Sequence” and developed by Bikram Choudhury (a seminal figure in making yoga so popular in the United States and throughout the world and the creator of Bikram Yoga, sometimes called “hot yoga”), could qualify for copyright protection.  In 1979, Choudhury published the book “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class” that includes descriptions and photographs of the Sequence in practice. In 2002, Choudhury also registered a copyright on the “compilation of exercises” contained in his book.  In 2009, the defendants founded their own yoga studio and offered “hot yoga” classes that included the Sequence.  Choudhury sued for copyright infringement claiming that the defendants infringed on his copyrighted works by offering yoga classes featuring the Sequence.

On October 8, 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Sequence falls squarely within the exclusion detailed in Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act, which excludes from copyright protection “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated or embedded in such work.”  The Ninth Circuit found the Sequence was a process for obtaining physical and emotional fitness and was, therefore, not copyrightable.

Tomaydo-Tomahhdo, LLC v. Vozary:  The issue in the Tomaydo-Tomahhdo case was whether a book of recipes could qualify for copyright protection.  The plaintiff was a restaurateur who created and ran a successful restaurant and delivery catering business.  In 2012, the plaintiff assembled a book of recipes that had been developed for the restaurant.  The defendant was a former partner in the plaintiff’s business.  He copied the plaintiff’s recipes and used them in a competing catering business, and the plaintiff sued him for copyright infringement.

On October 20, 2015, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held there was no copyright infringement because neither the recipes themselves nor the book which compiled the recipes were entitled to copyright protection.  In so holding, the Sixth Circuit explained that the recipes themselves are not covered by copyright because they are simply listings of facts (i.e. the ingredients) and functional instructions how to assemble the ingredients.  Likewise, the Sixth Circuit held that the recipe book did not have any originality (such as original commentary, pictures, etc. by the author) that qualified for copyright protection separate from the recipes themselves.

In both the Bikram Yoga case and the Tomaydo-Tomahhdo case, the parties claiming copyright protection may have been able to take steps to protect their intellectual property other than merely claiming copyrights in the materials addressed by those cases.  As always, we highly recommend that businesses consult with experienced intellectual property counsel to assess what IP protection may be available to the business.

 

 

 

 

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