Can Scraping Non-Infringing Content Become Copyright Infringement… Because Of How Scrapers Work?
from the this-seems-troubling dept
Earlier this year, we couldn’t figure out how Facebook’s lawsuit against Power.com made any sense. Power.com tried to aggregate various social networking accounts in a single place, so you could manage them all at once through a single interface. Yet Facebook charged the company with all sorts of complaints, including copyright and trademark infringement, unlawful competition and violation of the computer fraud and abuse act. Power.com asked for the case to be dismissed, but last month the judge sided with Facebook, but did so in a troubling way, by basically suggesting that since Facebook’s terms of service prohibited these uses, it made it copyright infringement. Michael Scott points us to lawyer Jeff Neuberger’s take on the ruling, and separately Tom O’Toole has a good analysis of the ruling. Neuberger states the following:
Judge Fogel concluded that the allegations of the complaint made out a sufficient claim of copyright infringement because Power Ventures “need only access and copy one page to commit copyright infringement.” The court also found that the ToU prohibited downloading, scraping or distributing content from the Facebook Web site content except that belonging to the user, and that in any event, using automated methods, i.e., “data mining, robots, scraping, or similar data gathering or extraction methods” to access any content were also prohibited by the ToU. Thus, the court found that the allegation that Power Ventures accessed Facebook via automated means constituted made out a claim of direct copyright infringement, while the allegation that Facebook users utilized the Power.com interface to access their own profile pages made out claim of secondary copyright infringement.
Thus, because the terms of service said you can’t do any automated scraping of the site, it’s suddenly infringing? Even worse, the court found that even though the data being used by Power.com isn’t owned by Facebook (it’s the users’) the scraping was still copyright infringement, because in order to scrape the non-infringing content, Power.com had to first “scrape” the whole page. O’Toole explains:
OK, so far the court has found that Power.com made unauthorized copies of the Facebook Web site. What about the fact that Facebook does not own the copyright in its users’ profile data? Facebook surmounted this hurdle by arguing that the content of the Facebook page that surrounded the user’s data is copyrightable and is owned by Facebook. According to Facebook, the Power.com scraper operated in a manner that required it to copy the entire Web page in order to extract the user’s profile data….
Note that the court is conditioning its ruling on the assertion that the Power Ventures scraper necessarily copied the entire Web page before it processed the page and extracted the profile data. That comports with my (limited) understanding of how a Web scraper works. But is it true? If it were true, couldn’t an argument be made that this is a fair use of the page? I’ll leave that for better lawyers.
All of this seems a bit troubling, as it would effectively rule out scraping even non-infringing content, just because the scraper had to first read through copyrighted content to get to the non-infringing stuff. But, that seems to go against the entire purpose of copyright law. The fact that the scraper reads copyrighted content shouldn’t mean that it’s infringement. It’s not doing anything with that content other than using it to find the content it can make use of. Anyway, this ruling probably doesn’t mean all that much, since it was just to reject the dismissal request, but it does seem odd that the judge gave so much weight to Facebook’s terms of service, and seems to indicate the mere act of scraping can be copyright infringement.