Key Legal Fight Shaping Up Over The Legality Of DMCA Abuses
from the stay-tuned dept
You may remember that, back in January, we wrote about a blog fight between two women with very different views on childbirth, which then descended into a ridiculous copyright fight. I won’t rehash all of the details, but the short version was that as a part of this fight, Gina Crosley-Corcoran posted a photo of herself giving the middle finger, and in posting it she told her rival, Dr. Amy Tuteur, it was “something you can take back to your blog and obsess over.” Tuteur reposted the photo to her own blog, along with a blog post about Crosley-Corcoran. Crosley-Corcoran then yelled copyright infringement, at which point Tuteur’s husband (a lawyer) explained to Crosley-Corcoran’s lawyer what fair use meant (and also what an implied license is). And then… DMCA takedown notices started flying, leading Tuteur to change her web host twice. Furthermore, Crosley-Corcoran bragged about using the DMCA takedowns to silence Tuteur and get her blog taken down — and (according to Tuteur’s lawyer) Crosley-Corcoran’s own lawyer admitted that she had no legitimate copyright claim.
As we noted in our post, if there ever were a case to explore the punishment for violating the DMCA, this seemed like a good one. The key to this, of course, is 512(f) of the DMCA, which says that if you make a material misrepresentation in a DMCA takedown, you can be liable for damages, including costs and attorney’s fees. However, at the same time, we noted why it’s almost impossible to get someone punished for a bogus DMCA takedown. Still… the evidence on this case seemed so extreme, with Crosley-Corcoran more or less telling the world that she was abusing the DMCA specifically to silence Tuteur, we thought it actually had a chance.
But then, a month ago, the judge in the district court in Massachusetts made a bizarre ruling rejecting the 512(f) claim in such a way that suggested no 512(f) claim would likely ever survive. It was bizarre in a few different ways. As Eric Goldman noted in his discussion of the ruling, the court was only supposed to be looking at a separate issue, involving the jurisdiction of the court over the case, but simply chose to go ahead and effectively rule on the key parts of the case, even though neither party had briefed the key issues. Among other things, the court focuses just on the first DMCA notice, and not the subsequent ones or the blatant statements of plans to keep using the DMCA to keep Tuteur’s entire blog offline. Goldman calls it “the most bizarre Article III analysis I’ve seen” because even though the court says that Tuteur has a plausible fair use and implied license claim, that doesn’t matter, because the court argues that the DMCA filer doesn’t need to pay attention to that:
there is no requirement in the DMCA that a notice-giver inform the service provider of an infringer’s possible affirmative defenses, only that she affirm her good faith belief (as appears to be the case here) that the copyrighted material is being used without her (or her agent’s) permission
That’s not actually what the law says. And it’s not actually what other courts that have ruled on this issue have said. At the very least, the court, recognizing that no briefs had been filed on the subject, gave Tuteur 21 days to respond. She did so with a long and detailed filing that reminds the court that this isn’t about just that one DMCA filing, but a lot more. And also highlighting that (a) the DMCA isn’t limited to just cases where things are posted without permission and (b) the other cases have said that a filer needs to take fair use into account. As her filing notes:
If fair use and license can be ignored when filing a DMCA takedown notice, persons like the Defendant (and, indeed, far more powerful organizations), would have a safe haven to freely muzzle their critics by literally chasing them off the Internet. A victim – who did nothing unlawful and whose acts were authorized by the Copyright Act – would be left without recourse and without a voice.
On the same day, the EFF along with Harvard’s Digital Media Law Project also filed an amicus brief explaining why the court is simply wrong about the DMCA abuse clause. After listing out four different cases that came to a different conclusion than the judge in this case, it notes:
The DMCA requires the copyright owner issuing a takedown notice to affirm that she has a “good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.” 17 U.S.C. § 512(c)(3)(A)(v) (emphasis added). “The fair use of a copyrighted work . . . is not an infringement of copyright,” 17 U.S.C. § 107. An allegation that a copyright owner issued a takedown notice knowing that the use in question was in fact authorized by law, and/or that she had not formed a good faith belief to the contrary is, therefore, sufficient to state a claim under Section 512(f).
This is the fundamental mistake that the court made. The DMCA doesn’t say that you can only be punished if the you didn’t have permission — but if the use is not authorized by the law. And, the law clearly states that fair use is not infringement. Thus, fair use is authorized use even if it doesn’t involve permission.
Crosley-Corcoran’s lawyers apparently were not at all pleased to see the EFF and the DMLP jump in on this case, and proceeded to quickly oppose the entire brief, arguing that it shouldn’t be allowed in the case. The reasoning? Apparently, that Tuteur has good enough lawyers already and doesn’t need any support from the likes of the EFF or Harvard:
It is rare – perhaps sadly so – that one has both the opportunity and a reason to praise the litigation skills of opposing counsel. This, then, is something of a unique opportunity. Attorney Beck, a former partner with the national law firm Foley & Lardner LLP, and Attorney Riden, a former senior counsel to Foley & Lardner, have, collectively, almost 40 years of sophisticated litigation experience. Among his many accolades, Attorney Beck is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell, a Chambers recognized attorney, a Massachusetts Super Lawyer, a Top 100 New England attorney, and a nationally recognized authority on trade secret and non-competition law. Attorney Riden is a Massachusetts Super Lawyer, a recipient of the Best Lawyers designation, a frequently quoted legal authority, and a former appellate law clerk. They are, in short, eminently qualified to represent the interests of Plaintiff in this action and to fully brief the issues raised by this Court’s Order of April 10, 2013, requiring them to show cause why the present action should not be dismissed.
This being the case, the addition of two more legal Goliaths will do little to advance this Court’s understanding of the issues raised (which do not seem to be so complex as to cry out for the assistance of non-parties), and instead will only needlessly multiply the costs of an already overly-costly litigation. For the reasons stated herein, Defendant Gina Crosley-Corcoran respectfully requests that the non-party requests for leave to file an amicus brief be denied.
There is a legitimate argument to be made that, especially at the district court level, if an outside party filing an amicus curiae brief that is only repeating the same arguments as a party in the case, it is not appropriate. However, it does seem that the EFF/DMLP briefing does raise a few different key points than Tuteur’s brief, which focuses much more on the specifics of her situation, while the amici brief covers much more generally the policy issues behind section 512(f) and more of the legal history there. It seems, especially given the court’s apparent misreading of the law in its initial order, that it makes sense to include the brief.
Finally, on Thursday, Crosley-Corcoran filed her response to Tuteur’s argument, in which she claims (of course) that “the court had it right the first time.” Except, the law is pretty clear and this filing has it wrong. I don’t really see how anyone can argue that. From there, they make two key arguments. The first is that, despite the fact that Tuteur ended up having to switch hosts twice, neither switch actually involved a host taking down the content in question, and thus she cannot claim any damage from the DMCA takedown notices, bogus or not. Specifically, the filing argues that Tuteur chose to move from the first host, BlueHost, after she sent a counternotice and after BlueHost had said it would take no action (though, this is after BlueHost had warned her earlier that if she didn’t remove the content, it could close down her account). It then says that the move away from the second host, DaringHost, was because the site was getting too much traffic, and the owner of DaringHost, supplied a deposition stating that he had explained this to Tuteur.
This absolutely does weaken Tuteur’s 512(f) claim, because it certainly decreases the damages caused by the takedown notices. But it still does ignore the two key points pushing back on this: Crosley-Corcoran’s lawyer admitting that there was no legitimate copyright claim and Crosley-Corcoran herself bragging publicly about using the DMCA to silence Tuteur.
Separately, the filing goes back to the same point that we’ve discussed before about why it’s so difficult to win a 512(f) case: the use of the “subjective bad faith” standard. Of course, one would think that Crosley-Corcoran’s own statements would pass that bar. However, the filing insists that her lawyers took fair use into account, and simply decided that Tuteur’s use didn’t qualify (which seems to go against what Tuteur claims Crosley-Corcoran’s lawyers told her). Crosley-Corcoran’s filing conveniently ignores all of that and says, basically, “of course we considered fair use and rejected it” so the 512(f) claim is dead.
If that’s allowed, then that effectively makes 512(f) a useless law, because all anyone has to say is they considered it before sending a bogus DMCA takedown and they can get away with it. That’s clearly not what Congress intended with the law, otherwise why include it at all?
Either way, this case is shaping up to be a key one to watch in determining whether or not there are any teeth at all (even little ones) associated with 512(f) in providing a tool for those who have been attacked with bogus DMCA filings.