Are Your Business’s Posts on Instagram Protected?

Whether you run your own independent photography business, or you operate a virtual online coaching and nutrition business, the reality is, you have an Instagram, and you use that Instagram to market your services and attract clients. In fact, for many businesses, maintaining a publicly searchable account on Instagram to share photos and videos is a necessity for a successful business. Now, imagine the nightmare scenario where Instagram sells one of your images on your business’s Instagram account to a third-party vendor. That would surely be a copyright infringement and you as the business owner would have a viable and enforceable claim against that third party for copyright infringement, right? Recently, the Southern District for New York has addressed this specific issue, and so far, the answer is less than clear.

Back in April of 2020, a Judge in the Southern District of New York dismissed a plaintiff’s complaint filed against two defendants’ alleging a copyright claim. The plaintiff is a photographer, and Ziff Davis is a digital media and advertising company that owns multiple online brands and print titles. Ziff Davis owns Mashable, a media and entertainment platform that operates the website www.mashable.com.  The plaintiff uploaded an image titled “Child, Bride, Mother/Child Marriage in Guatemala,” in which she owns an exclusive United States copyright, on her public Instagram account. In 2016, Mashable contacted the plaintiff to license the image to showcase on their website. The plaintiff declined the offer. Nonetheless, a few days later, Mashable published an article and included a copy of the image. Mashable was able to do this with relative ease by embedding the content on Instagram to their website. Embedding occurs where a third party publishes content from Instagram’s servers in an Instagram frame on the third-party users’ website. In the complaint, the plaintiff agreed that rather than copying her photograph directly, the defendant posted “embed code” on its site which embedded the image in its article. The reality is, internet platforms including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn provide their users with embed code, with which users may embed their content either on the social media platform or on other sites. Users have control to restrict or prevent embedding of their content if they designate their content as private.

The governing document central to the dispute is Instagram’s “Terms of Use.” When the plaintiff, and any other individual or business that enters into a contract with Instagram, accepts the Terms of Use, they are licensing to Instagram any photo they share while their account is set to public. Images may be sub-licensed by Instagram to a third-party user of Instagram’s services. Additionally, the defendants cited to Instagram’s “Platform Policy” which states that Instagram “provides the Instagram application programming interface (“API”) to help broadcasters and publishers discover content, get digital rights to media, and share media using web embeds.” The judge agreed with defendants and affirmed that the use of a public Instagram photo as embedded in an article on a third-party website is covered by Instagram’s Terms of Use.

                However, last week, the Southern District in New York reconsidered its ruling in Sinclair v. Ziff Davis, LLC after a different judge in the same district addressed the same issue but ruled in the opposite. Earlier this month in McGucken v. Newsweek LLC, the court refused to dismiss the photographer’s copyright infringement claims based on Instagram’s Terms of Use, despite the defendant relying on the Sinclair decision in their argument.

Upon reconsideration, the judge reversed the earlier opinion and instead denied Mashable’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s second amendment complaint. Relying on McGucken, the District Judge reasoned that there are various interpretations of Instagram’s Terms of Use and Platform Policy. Upon reconsideration, the court agreed with the earlier opinion that the plaintiff in Sinclair agreed to the Terms of Use and by doing so, authorized Instagram to sub-license her public content. However, the court did not find evidence that Instagram had exercised this right by extending a license to Mashable, the defendant. The earlier opinion did not give full force to the requirement that a license must convey the licensor’s explicit consent to use a copyrighted work.

Then, on June 4, 2020, Instagram publicly clarified that its policies do not grant a blanket license to API users to embed public third party content. The social media tycoon stated “Our platform policies require third parties to have the necessary rights from applicable rights holders. This includes ensuring they have a license to share this content, if a license is required by law.” This declaration by Instagram is a victory for business owners who use public facing Instagram accounts and provides an answer to the possible interpretations the court alluded to on reconsideration in Sinclair with respect to Instagram’s Terms of Use. Now, business owners who upload content on their Instagram have a powerful tool in their toolbox when it comes to fighting copyright violations.

VW Contributor: Skylar Young
© 2020 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Intellectual Property: A Peloton Story

Most people know Peloton because of their flashy and controversial ads, as well as for revolutionizing the indoor cycling industry. However, as Peloton forges forward in the competitive fitness equipment industry and fights to keep its stock price above its IPO level, they have also been litigating trademark and copyright claims. Recently, a Federal District Court ruled in favor of Peloton in the trademark matter, which means, for now, Peloton will be able to retain its name.

In the case, Move Press, LLC v. Peloton Interactive, Inc., Move Press claimed that Peloton was infringing on their trademark rights because Move Press has a cycling publication named Peloton Magazine. Move Press had registered this trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and its use of the mark clearly preceded the use by Peloton. However, Move Press did not file the claim against Peloton for well over four years. As a result, Peloton argued that this claim was barred under an equitable legal theory known as laches, which means that Move Press waited an unreasonable period of time to bring the claim. Peloton had to argue laches, as opposed to a statute of limitations, because the Lanham Act, which governs registered trademarks, does not have a statute of limitations. The Federal District Court, after undergoing a rigorous review of the elements in the laches defense, ruled in favor of Peloton.

Had Move Press timely made the claim against Peloton, the result would have likely been in favor of Move Press and the public would know Peloton as something different. For business owners, this raises two important points. The first is that every registered trademark owner has an obligation to police their marks and, should they find someone infringing on their mark, timely bring a claim. The second is that a business, when selecting its name, branding a new product, or re-branding, should review its rights in the marks prior to making a significant marketing investment.

VW Contributor: Alex Rainville
© 2019 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Whether a Software Interface is Protected under Copyright Law

In a case that pertains to technology originally developed in the 1990s, the United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc. The dispute between these two technology giants focuses on application programming interfaces (API) that Oracle developed through its predecessor, Sun Microsystems, Inc. At issue for the technology industry is whether an API is copyrightable and, therefore, protected.

The API is critical to most technology companies, especially those with complex and multi-layered tech stacks, because it allows the company to integrate and communicate with other software developers. By way of example and at issue in the case, the Android operating system uses the API originally created by Oracle to allow third-party developers to integrate into the operating system. Although most consumers will not understand how the API works, the use of third-party applications in the Google owned Android operating system is made possible through the API. As a result of its importance in modern commerce, many technology companies protect the structure, sequence, and organization of the API, even if they share how to connect to it.

Regardless of the decision by the Supreme Court on whether the API is protectable under copyright law, the ramifications will be significant. In fact, most of the prominent global technology companies have filed briefs in this case to voice their opinion on the matter. When the Supreme Court decides the case in 2020, every company that interfaces and integrates into the software of another company will need to re-evaluate their intellectual property protection strategies.

VW Contributor: Alex Rainville
© 2019 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Copyright Ownership when Using Independent Contractors and Service Providers

Businesses often utilize a third-party for services, especially when directly employing someone to perform the task will not add value to the organization. By way of example, it is common practice for a business to hire a freelance photographer, a marketing company to write advertising copy, or an independent contractor to write specific policies and procedures. For many, the business needs require the decision maker move fast and little consideration is given the intellectual property rights. Unfortunately, this can lead to a number of challenges for both the business and the independent contractor.

Generally, when a business hires an independent contractor, the ownership of the creative work belongs to the hiring business. That means the independent contractor is unable to use the work that they actually created without the permission of the business. By way of example, a freelance photographer is infringing on the businesses copyright ownership when posting the photo they took on behalf of the business to their personal portfolio website. Conversely, if the agreement between the business and the independent contractor provides that the independent contractor will have ownership rights, the business may be limited in how they can use the work that they specifically hired the independent contractor to complete. Even more complicated is when no written agreement exists at all or if the business is operating in certain states that have rules that alter the ownership analysis.

To avoid intellectual property disputes that arise from hiring independent contractors, a business should ensure that they have an agreement in place with each independent contractor. The agreement should address ownership and, in many of the more complex business relationships, ensure that the licensing adequately protects the interests of both parties.

VW Contributor: Alex Rainville
© 2019 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Pre-registration of a Copyrightable Work

An often overlooked method to protect copyrightable works is pre-registration. This method will likely become a little more prominent because, earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court determined in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, 585 U.S. ___ (2019) that a copyright owner must wait to bring suit for copyright infringement until their works have been registered. Previously, in the view of certain lower courts, the copyright owner simply had to apply for registration. This decision increased the burden on copyright owners to bring a suit for infringement, but the Supreme Court noted several reasons for its decision, including pre-registration.

Pre-registration is a tool used to protect unpublished works that are in the final stages before commercial distribution, making them particular susceptible to copyright infringement. Instead of following the full registration process that will take over half a year, the copyright owner would submit the work to the United States Copyright Office and, after a limited review, will receive pre-registration. Under Section 408(f) of the Copyright Act, a work that has been pre-registered provides the copyright owner an opportunity to immediately bring a suit for copyright infringement.

Although this particular method of protection might have limited application, it is an important tool to ensure that owners of particularly vulnerable copyrightable works are able to bring suit immediately against those infringing on their works. Otherwise, the copyright owner will have to wait eight or nine months to receive actual registration from the copyright office before they can bring a suit for copyright infringement, which would likely damage the value of the underlying intellectual property. As always, the attorneys at Vandenack Weaver are available to assist with protecting your intellectual property.

VW Contributor: Alex Rainville
© 2019 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Copyright Infringement: Will Congress Make it Easier to Obtain a Remedy?

On October 22, 2019, the United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 2426, The Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2019. The intent of the legislation is to make it easier for copyright owners to seek enforcement of their rights in situations where the overall damages to the copyright owner are minimal. Essentially, the Copyright Office would create a Copyright Claims Board that would adjudicate infringement claims with damages under $30,000.

The rationale behind the legislation is that cost is a significant impediment to a copyright holder bringing a claim against someone infringing on their work. To bring a claim, as recently determined by the United States Supreme Court, the underlying work must be registered with the United States Copyright Office, which takes time and includes certain expenses. Once registered, the copyright owner can only seek a remedy in federal court, since that is the exclusive jurisdiction for a copyright infringement claim. This process is expensive and, although attorney’s fees can be recovered pursuant to section 505 of the Copyright Act, the United States Supreme Court has also recently limited the scope of recovery. The end result is that many copyright owners are unable to seek a remedy.

This legislation passed with near unanimous support in the United States House of Representatives and moves to the United States Senate for consideration. Should this legislation ultimately become law, it will likely have a significant impact on how copyright owners protect their intellectual property.

VW Contributor: Alex B. Rainville
© 2019 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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