With over one billion websites on the Internet, and 211 million items of online content created every minute, it should come as no surprise that content curation is one of the hottest trends in the Internet industry. We are overwhelmed with online content, and we increasingly rely on others to separate the good from the bad so that we can make more efficient use of our time spent surfing the web.

Consistent with this trend, many websites that host user-generated content are now focused on filtering out content that is awful, duplicative, off-topic, or otherwise of little interest to site visitors. And these sites often find that humans—typically passionate volunteers from the sites’ user communities—are better than algorithms at sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Of course, any website that deals with user-generated content needs to consider potential copyright liability arising from such content. We’ve discussed in past Socially Aware blog posts the critical importance of Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the DMCA) to the success of YouTube, Facebook and other online platforms that host user-generated content. By providing online service providers with immunity from monetary damages in connection with the hosting of content at the direction of users, Section 512(c) has fueled the growth of the U.S. Internet industry. Continue Reading Could the Use of Online Volunteers and Moderators Increase Your Company’s Copyright Liability Exposure?

GettyImages-183313080With over one billion websites on the Internet, and 211 million items of online content created every minute, it should come as no surprise that content curation is one of the hottest trends in the Internet industry. We are overwhelmed with online content, and we increasingly rely on others to separate good content from bad content so we can make more efficient use of our time spent surfing the web.

Consistent with this trend, many websites that host user-generated content are now focused on filtering out content that is awful, duplicative, off-topic or otherwise of little interest to site visitors. And these sites are often finding that humans—typically passionate volunteers from these sites’ user communities—do a better job than algorithms in sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Of course, any website that deals with user-generated content needs to worry about potential copyright liability arising from such content. We’ve discussed in past Socially Aware blog posts the critical importance of Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to the success of YouTube, Facebook and other online sites that host user-generated content. By providing online service providers with immunity from monetary damages in connection with the hosting of content at the direction of users, Section 512(c) has fueled the growth of the U.S. Internet industry. Continue Reading Could the Use of Online Volunteers and Moderators Increase Your Company’s Copyright Liability Exposure?

GettyImages-179131621-600pxOne of the most significant legal concerns for Internet service providers is the risk of exposure to liability for the copyright infringements of their users. The concern is not unreasonable. Because Internet service providers can be held secondarily liable for the infringements of their users, and because this liability can come with statutory damages attached, the service provider’s potential economic exposure can be significant, especially for Internet service providers engaged in the transmission or hosting of user-generated content.

Moreover, the principle of joint and several liability may further increase this potential economic exposure for Internet service providers.

Under Section 504(c) of the Copyright Act, which permits a range of statutory damages for each infringed work, the principle of joint and several liability can make a defendant liable for multiple statutory damage awards for infringing a single work. The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Columbia Pictures Television v. Krypton Broadcasting of Birmingham, Inc. two decades ago illustrates the operation of this principle.

The defendants in Columbia Pictures were three television stations that had directly infringed upon plaintiff’s copyrights independently of each other. Consequently, the company that owned the three stations was secondarily liable for their infringement. Relying in part on legislative history, the court held that the plaintiff was entitled to separately calculated statutory awards against each of the three stations as they were separate infringers, and that, with respect to these awards, each of the three stations was jointly and severally liable with their common owner. Continue Reading Limiting Statutory Damages in Internet Copyright Cases

CheerUniformsDecisionImageOn March 22, 2017, the Supreme Court held in Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands that design elements of cheerleading uniforms may be protected under the Copyright Act. The 6-2 decision, written by Justice Thomas, clarified the scope of protection afforded to clothing designs and, more broadly, designs on useful articles.

Varsity Brands, Inc.—the country’s largest cheerleading supplier—owns more than 200 copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs consisting of combinations of chevrons, stripes, and other colorful shapes for its cheerleading uniforms. At issue in this case were the five pictured designs.

Varsity Brands sued Star Athletica, LLC, an upstart competitor, for copyright infringement. The District Court for the Western District of Tennessee granted Star Athletica’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the designs could not be conceptually or physically separated from the uniforms, and they were therefore ineligible for copyright protection. The Copyright Act makes “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” of the “design of a useful article” eligible for copyright protection as artistic works only if those features “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” The Sixth Circuit reversed, concluding that the graphics were “separately identifiable” and “capable of existing independently” of the uniforms.

In affirming, the Supreme Court laid out a two-part test for when a feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection: When the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article; and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated. “To be clear, the only feature of the cheerleading uniform eligible for a copyright in this case is the two-dimensional work of art,” the Court explained. “Respondents have no right to prohibit any person from manufacturing a cheerleading uniform of identical shape, cut, and dimensions to the ones on which the decorations in this case appear.” Continue Reading Supreme Court Rules Cheerleading Uniform Designs Are Copyrightable

ContentGraphic_SmallWe’re in the midst of a seismic shift in how companies interact with user-generated content (UGC).

For years, companies were happy simply to host UGC on their websites, blogs and social media pages and reap the resulting boost to their traffic numbers. And U.S. law—in the form of Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)—accommodated this passive use of UGC by creating a safe harbor from copyright damages for websites, blogs and social media platform operators that hosted UGC posted without the authorization of the owners of the copyrights in such UGC, so long as such operators complied with the requirements of the safe harbor.

Increasingly, companies are no longer satisfied with passively hosting UGC. Rather, they now want to find creative ways to commercialize such content—by incorporating it into ads (including print, TV and other offline ads), creating new works based on such content and even selling such content. Yet, in moving beyond mere hosting to proactive exploitation of UGC, companies risk losing the benefit of the DMCA Section 512(c) safe harbor, which could result in potentially significant copyright liability exposure.

For example, if a company finds that users are posting potentially valuable UGC to the company’s Facebook page, or on Twitter in connection with one of the company’s hashtags, that company may want to make such UGC available on its own website. The DMCA Section 512(c) safe harbor, however, is unlikely to protect the company in copying such UGC from the Facebook or Twitter platform to its own website.

The reality is that any company seeking to monetize or otherwise exploit UGC needs to proceed with extreme caution. This is true for several reasons:

  • UGC can implicate a wide range of rights . . . As with any content, UGC is almost certainly subject to copyright protection, although certain Tweets and other short, text-only posts could potentially be exempt from copyright protection if they qualify as “short phrases” under the Copyright Act. If any individuals are identifiable in UGC, then rights of publicity and rights of privacy may also be relevant. In addition, UGC may contain visible third-party trademarks or comments that defame or invade the privacy of third parties.
  • . . . and a wide range of rightsholders. Notably, many of the rights necessary to exploit UGC are likely to be held by individuals and corporations other than the posting user. For example, unless a photo is a “selfie,” the photographer and the subject of the photo will be different individuals, with each holding different rights—copyright, for the photographer, and the rights of publicity and privacy, for the subject—that could be relevant to the exploitation of the photo. Moreover, any trademarks, logos and other images contained in a photo could potentially implicate third-party rightsholders, including third-party corporations. Videos also raise the possibility of unauthorized clips or embedded music.
  • If the UGC is hosted by a third-party social network, it may have Terms of Service that help—or hurt—efforts to exploit the UGC. Most social media networks collect broad rights to UGC from their users, although they differ substantially when it comes to passing those rights along to third parties interested in exploiting the content. For example, if a company uses Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API) to identify and access Tweets that it would like to republish, then Twitter grants to that company a license to “copy a reasonable amount of and display” the Tweets on the company’s own services, subject to certain limitations. (For example, Twitter currently prohibits any display of Tweets that could imply an endorsement of a product or service, absent separate permission from the user.) Instagram also has an API that provides access to UGC, but, in contrast to Twitter, Instagram’s API terms do not appear to grant any license to the UGC and affirmatively require companies to “comply with any requirements or restrictions” imposed by Instagram users on their UGC.

With these risks in mind, we note several emerging best practices for a company to consider if it has decided to exploit UGC in ways that may fall outside the scope of DMCA Section 512(c) and other online safe harbors. Although legal risk can never be eliminated in dealing with UGC, these strategies may help to reduce such risk:

  • Carefully review the Social Media Platform Terms. If the item of UGC at issue has been posted to a social media platform, determine whether the Terms of Service for such platform grants any rights to use such posted UGC off of the platform or imposes any restrictions on such content. Note, however, that any license to UGC granted by a social media platform almost certainly will not include any representations, warranties or indemnities, and so it may not offer any protection against third-party claims arising from the UGC at issue.
  • Seek Permission. If the social media platform’s governing terms don’t provide you with all of the rights needed to exploit the UGC item at issue (or even if they do), seek permission directly from the user who posted the item. Sophisticated brands will often approach a user via the commenting or private messaging features of the applicable social media platform, and will present him or her with a link to a short, user-friendly license agreement. Often, the user will be delighted by the brand’s interest in using his or her content. Of course, be aware that the party posting the content may not be the party that can authorize use of that content, as Agence France Presse learned the hard way in using photos taken from Twitter.
  • Make Available Terms and Conditions for “Promotional” Hashtags. If a company promotes a particular hashtag to its customers, and would like to use content that is posted in conjunction with the hashtag, the company could consider making available a short set of terms alongside its promotion of that hashtag. For example, in any communications promoting the existence of the hashtag and associated marketing campaign, the company could inform customers that their use of the hashtag will constitute permission for the company to use any content posted together with the hashtag. Such an approach could face significant enforceability issues—after all, it is essentially a form of “browsewrap” agreement—but it could provide the company with a potential defense in the event of a subsequent dispute.
  • Adopt a Curation Process. Adopt an internal curation process to identify items of UGC that are especially high risk, which could include videos, photos of celebrities, photos of children, professional-quality content, any content containing copyright notices, watermarks and so forth, and any content containing potentially defamatory, fraudulent or otherwise illegal content. Ensure that the curators are trained and equipped with checklists and other materials approved by the company’s legal department or outside counsel. Ideally, any high-risk content should be subject to the company’s most stringent approach to obtaining permission and clearing rights—or perhaps avoided altogether.
  • Adjust the Approach for High-Risk Uses. Consider the way in which the UGC at issue is expected to be used, and whether the company’s risk tolerance should be adjusted accordingly. For example, if an item of UGC will be used in a high-profile advertisement, the company may want to undertake independent diligence on any questionable aspects of the UGC, even after obtaining the posting user’s permission—or perhaps avoid any questionable UGC altogether.

In a social media age that values authenticity, more and more companies—even big, risk-adverse Fortune 100 companies—are interested in finding ways to leverage UGC relevant to their business, products or services. Yet the shift from merely hosting UGC to actively exploiting it raises very real legal hurdles for companies. The tips above are not a substitute for working closely with experienced social media counsel, but they collectively provide a framework for addressing legal risks in connection with a company’s efforts to commercialize UGC.

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For more on the issues related to user-generated content, see New Court Decision Highlights Potential Headache for Companies Hosting User-Generated Content; Court Holds That DMCA Safe Harbor Does Not Extend to Infringement Prior to Designation of Agent; and Thinking About Using Pictures Pulled From Twitter? Think Again, New York Court Warns.

The UK wants to use the blockchain to track the spending of welfare recipients.

Some believe that a recent Ninth Circuit holding could turn sharing passwords into a federal crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

And another Ninth Circuit opinion sided with Facebook in a closely-watched case interpreting the same federal law, this time involving unauthorized access to Facebook’s website.

The fashion world is embroiled in a rocky romance with social media.

Snapchat filed a patent application for image-recognition technology that may help the platform’s ad sales.

Scientists think they’ve found a way to tackle virtual reality sickness.

What’s going on at Vine? First a bunch of influencers cut ties with the platform. Now a group of its top executives have jumped ship.

Livestreaming services are giving cable TV networks a run for their money.

You didn’t think we’d ignore the Pokémon Go craze, did you? Here’s advice on how to protect your privacy when you’re using the app. We’re also preparing an article describing the game and the business and legal issues that are arising from it. Stay tuned.

04_21_Apr_SociallyAware_v6_Page_01The latest issue of our Socially Aware newsletter is now available here.

In this issue of Socially Aware, our Burton Award winning guide to the law and business of social media. In this edition, we discuss what a company can do to help protect the likes, followers, views, tweets and shares that constitute its social media “currency”; we review a federal district court opinion refusing to enforce an arbitration clause included in online terms and conditions referenced in a “wet signature” contract; we highlight the potential legal risks associated with terminating an employee for complaining about her salary on social media; we explore the need for standardization and interoperability in the Internet of Things world; we examine the proposed EU-U.S. Privacy Shield’s attempt to satisfy consumers’ privacy concerns, the European Court of Justice’s legal requirements, and companies’ practical considerations; and we take a look at the European Commission’s efforts to harmonize the digital sale of goods and content throughout Europe.

All this—plus an infographic illustrating the growing popularity and implications of ad blocking software.

Read our newsletter.

Internet of things synchronized by smart phone isometric poster vector illustration

In an article published here in January we addressed some of the more significant Internet of Things (IoT) -specific standards and initiatives and emphasized the importance of interoperability as central to the growth and success of the products and services that leverage the IoT.  In this follow-up piece, we provide a detailed update regarding one of the leading efforts around standardization, the Open Connectivity Forum (OCF). We also cover three additional industry standards that have particular potential when used in IoT: Bluetooth Low Energy, Wi-Fi (including 5G) and Blockchain.

“Fragmentation is the Enemy”

On February 19, 2016, the Open Connectivity Forum (OCF), a new standards effort for the IoT, was announced. Led by Intel, Qualcomm, ARRIS, CableLabs, Cisco, Electrolux, GE Digital,  Microsoft and Samsung, the OCF reportedly seeks to merge the current efforts towards standards development in the IoT, uniting the former Open Interconnect Consortium with companies at all levels, and is “dedicated to providing this key interoperability element of an IoT solution.” The initiative hopes to circumvent the expenditure of time and resources in building consensus between multiple standards approaches, accelerating innovation and assisting developers create solutions that map to one open IoT interoperability specification.  Emphasizing this point, Qualcomm recently published on its website that “fragmentation is the enemy of IoT.” The OCF sponsors the IoTivity open source project (covered in Part 1 of this Alert) which includes a reference implementation of the OCF specification licensed under the open source Apache 2.0 license.

OCF Intellectual Property Policy

The Intellectual Property Policy adopted by the OCF shows a high level of attention to detail, thoroughness and nuance. Those considering joining would be well-advised to get some help in understanding how these terms will apply to their specific intellectual property portfolio, products, components and services. We have chosen to take a deeper dive into the intellectual property policy for this standard because the details of the policy reveal a number of areas of focus of the founding members.

While the policy imposes obligations on members as well as their affiliates to grant licenses under copyrights and patents, the scope and cost of those licenses will depend on a number of specifics that will vary depending on the precise contours of the final specifications. Members are required to represent that they are authorized to bind their affiliates to the terms of the policy, including parent and sister companies.

1. Patent Claims Captured. The patent claims captured by the policy are limited in a number of ways:

  • The only claims captured are those that would be necessarily infringed by implementing the mandatory portions of the specifications within the bounds of a tightly defined scope that ties specifically to enabling the compliant portions of products to interoperate, interconnect or communicate.
  • Necessary infringement is defined as there being no “commercially reasonable” non-infringing alternative for this enablement. The policy requires that any transfer of these necessary patent claims to unaffiliated third parties must be subject to the terms and conditions of the policy, and transfer or assignment agreements must explicitly address the fact that the transfer or assignment is subject to existing licenses and obligations imposed by standards bodies such as OCF. Those who practice in the merger and acquisition arena will want to take note of the potential issues for both sellers and acquirers in light of these requirements.

2. Patent License Scope. The license scope is also limited in similarly nuanced ways. The license under the above patent claims extends to only those portions of products and services that implement the protocols, functions, APIs and their adaptation layers, input parameters, data structures, services and firmware descriptors that fall within the mandatory portions of the final specification (including mandatory portions of optional components of the specification). Moreover, the policy goes to great lengths to ensure that, unless the final specification is explicit and describes in detail these items where the description’s sole purpose is to enable interoperability, interconnection or communication, no license will apply. This would seem to place a heavy burden on the developers of the specification taking  this into account in developing the details of the specifications.

3. Opt-Out is not true Opt-Out. Another interesting aspect of the policy is that while the policy allows for members to exclude specified patent claims from the royalty-free license, this opt-out mechanism is constrained. Most importantly, members cannot opt out entirely. The policy imposes a requirement to license those excluded patent claims on reasonable and necessary non-discriminatory terms—again, this applies even if patent claims are excluded in accordance with the opt-out framework. The opt-out mechanism also only can be exercised 4 times in any 60 month period.

4. Copyright and Software. While we have focused on patents here due to the policy’s emphasis on the patent rights granted, the policy also imposes obligations to license copyrights.  The policy only addresses rights under copyright to contributions made by members to the specification itself.  The policy also includes a brief statement permitting members to contribute OCF open source that OCF deems acceptable and non-confidential as well as modifications and additions to such open source software to open source projects.  It is not clear what will be considered “acceptable” and what software will be made non-confidential.  The policy also appears to be limited to the following acknowledgment: members may license their software source code that implements the specification under open source licenses and may make contributions of such source code to open source projects.  No limitations on which open source projects are permitted appear.  This seems odd given that this could result in OCF open source software ending up being contributed to projects that impose license terms that conflict with one another.  It seems that OCF may have decided to defer these issues to the future once it has determined what is “acceptable” and what software OCF itself will make available.

5. Rights on Termination. Termination also raises issues for terminating as well as continuing members. Once members join, they may not terminate the licenses they have previously granted to other members prior to termination with respect to versions of the final specification that existed while they were members or contributions to draft specifications that they made which become part of subsequent versions of the specification after their termination. Continuing members are also required to provide more or less reciprocal grants. Continue Reading The Internet of Things: Interoperability, Industry Standards & Related IP Licensing Approaches (Part 2)

03_21_Signs_Today’s companies compete not only for dollars but also for likes, followers, views, tweets, comments and shares. “Social currency,” as some researchers call it, is becoming increasingly important and companies are investing heavily in building their social media fan bases. In some cases, this commitment of time, money and resources has resulted in staggering success. Coca-Cola, for example, has amassed over 96 million likes on its Facebook page and LEGO’s YouTube videos have been played over 2 billion times.

With such impressive statistics, there is no question that a company’s social media presence and the associated pages and profiles can be highly valuable business assets, providing an important means for disseminating content and connecting with customers. But how much control does a company really have over these social media assets? What recourse would be available if a social media platform decided to delete a company’s page or migrate its fans to another page?

The answer may be not very much. Over the past few years, courts have repeatedly found in favor of social media platforms in a number of cases challenging the platforms’ ability to delete or suspend accounts and to remove or relocate user content.

Legal Show-Downs on Social Media Take-Downs

In a recent California case, Lewis v. YouTube, LLC, the plaintiff Jan Lewis’s account was removed by YouTube due to allegations that she artificially inflated view counts in violation of YouTube’s Terms of Service. YouTube eventually restored Lewis’s account and videos but not the view counts or comments that her videos had generated prior to the account’s suspension.

Lewis sued YouTube for breach of contract, alleging that YouTube had deprived her of her reasonable expectations under the Terms of Service that her channel would be maintained and would continue to reflect the same number of views and comments. She sought damages as well as specific performance to compel YouTube to restore her account to its original condition.

The court first held that Lewis could not show damages due to the fact that the YouTube Terms of Service contained a limitation of liability provision that disclaimed liability for any omissions relating to content. The court also held that Lewis was not entitled to specific performance because there was nothing in the Terms of Service that required YouTube to maintain particular content or to display view counts or comments. Accordingly, the court affirmed dismissal of Lewis’s complaint.

In a similar case, Darnaa LLC v. Google, Inc., Darnaa, a singer, posted a music video on YouTube. Again, due to allegations of view count inflation, YouTube removed and relocated the video to a different URL, disclosing on the original page that the video had been removed for violating its Terms of Service. Darnaa sued for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, interference with prospective economic advantage and defamation. In an email submitted with the complaint, Darnaa’s agent explained that she had launched several large campaigns (each costing $250,000 to $300,000) to promote the video and that the original link was already embedded in thousands of websites and blogs. Darnaa sought damages as well as an injunction to prevent YouTube from removing the video or changing its URL.

The court dismissed all of Darnaa’s claims because YouTube’s Terms of Service require lawsuits to be filed within one year and Darnaa had filed her case too late. In its discussion, however, the court made several interesting points. In considering whether YouTube’s Terms of Service were unconscionable, the court held that, although the terms are by nature a “contract of adhesion,” the level of procedural unconscionability was slight, since the plaintiff could have publicized her videos on a different website. Further, in ruling that the terms were not substantively unconscionable, the court pointed out that “[b]ecause YouTube offers its hosting services free of charge, it is reasonable for YouTube to retain broad discretion over [its] services.”

Although the court ultimately dismissed Darnaa’s claims based on the failure to timely file the suit, the decision was not a complete victory for YouTube. The court granted leave to amend to give Darnaa the opportunity to plead facts showing that she was entitled to equitable tolling of the contractual limitations period. Therefore, the court went on to consider whether Darnaa’s allegations were sufficient to state a claim. Among other things, the court held that YouTube’s Terms of Service were ambiguous regarding the platform’s rights to remove and relocate user videos in its sole discretion. Thus, the court further held that if Darnaa were able to amend the complaint to avoid the consequences of the failure to timely file, then the complaint would be sufficient to state a claim for breach of the contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

Continue Reading How to Protect Your Company’s Social Media Currency

InternetofthingsThe financial impact of the Internet of Things on the global economy will be significantly affected by interoperability. A 2015 McKinsey Global Institute report indicated that, “[on] average, interoperability is necessary to create 40 percent of the potential value that can be generated by the IoT in various settings […] Interoperability is required to unlock more than $4 trillion per year in potential economic impact for IoT use in 2025, out of a total impact of $11.1 trillion across the nine settings that McKinsey analyzed.”

However, at present, there is a lack of consensus between standards organizations and industry stakeholders as to even the most basic technical standards and protocols that apply to how devices communicate. Characterized as a “standards war” between technology groups, companies have competing incentives. While all vendors share an interest in aligned standards that promote IoT development and interoperability, individually some companies seek the perceived competitive and economic advantages of building proprietary systems based on proprietary standards and protocols (or so-called “walled-gardens”).

The lack of a uniform standard that applies across devices and networks means that we lack any universally adopted set of semantics. As a result, without clear definition, opportunities for misunderstandings abound. We start then with the definition of two key concepts: the definition of the Internet of Things or “IoT,” and the definition of interoperability as applied to the Internet of Things.

Internet of Things

The term “Internet of Things” is arguably a misnomer in today’s rapidly changing technical environment. The term has two components, both of which are somewhat misleading: “Internet” and “things.”

The reference to the Internet is misleading because the Internet is not the only networking protocol over which devices communicate. While the Internet is a powerful enabler of the broad adoption of connected devices, the networks and communications protocols that support our connected world are far more diverse and continue to proliferate.

The term “things,” while not limiting in and of itself, is vague at best. In this article, when we refer to “things,” we intend to encompass all of the types of objects that have the ability to connect and communicate, whether those objects be sensors, computers or everyday things. The ability to connect with other objects and communicate data makes the object “smart.”

Continue Reading The Internet of Things: Interoperability, Industry Standards & Related IP Licensing Approaches