Appeals Court Tells Lower Court To Consider If Standards 'Incorporated Into Law' Are Fair Use; Could Have Done More
from the 102(b)-or-not-102(b),-that-was-the-question dept
Carl Malamud published the law on his PublicResource.org website. And for that he got sued. The problem was, in posting the Code of Federal Regulations he also included the various enforceable standards included as part of those Regulations. This displeased the organizations which had developed those standards (SDOs) and who claimed a copyright in them. So they sued Public Resource for infringement, and in a terrible decision last year Public Resource lost. Public Resource then appealed, and this week Malamud’s organization won a reversal of the district court decision.
The decision by the D.C. Circuit in American Society for Testing and Materials v. PublicResource.org stands as a win for those who would choose to republish the law, even when their doing so may involve republishing standards created by non-governmental SDOs that were then incorporated by reference into controlling law. Although one can never presume to read the tea leaves at oral argument, it did seem as though the court was extremely uncomfortable with the idea that someone could be punished for having published the law. But the particular way the court addressed the copyright and trademark claims brought against Public Resource for it having done so is still worth further discussion. Disclosure: I helped file an amicus brief on behalf of members of Congress supporting Public Resource’s defense, and amicus briefs on behalf of law professors at the district court.
On the copyright front, it is important to first note how the court did NOT resolve the question of whether republishing standards incorporated into law constituted copyright infringement. A threshold question in any copyright infringement case is whether there’s any copyright that could have been infringed at all, because no copyright = no infringement, and with no infringement the case goes away. One way there might not be a copyright is if employees of the federal government had worked on developing the standards, like the ones at issue in this case, since under § 105 of the copyright statute, works by federal government employees are ineligible for copyright protection. But in its decision the D.C. Circuit dismissed this argument, finding that Public Resource had effectively waived it at the district court below.
As an initial matter, PRO argues that there is a triable question as to whether the standards at issue here were ever validly copyrighted given the Act?s prohibition on copyrighting ?work[s] of the United States Government,? 17 U.S.C. § 105, and the fact that government employees may have participated in drafting certain standards. PRO, however, failed to adequately present this claim to the district court and has thus forfeited it. [p. 14]
Another way there might not be copyright in the standards Public Resource published is that, by being published as a factual representation of what the law is, that factual nature would preclude there being a copyright in what was republished, since, per § 102(b) of the copyright statute, purely factual works are also not eligible for copyright protection. This consideration was kicked around by the judges during oral argument because it’s a complicated issue with some interesting implications. First, there’s the question of whether the standards themselves are too factual to be copyrighted, but for the sake of this case the court generally assumed they could be. But even if they are copyrightable, the next question is what happens when the standards have now become a factual representation of the law governing people’s behavior? Does that incorporation cause them to lose their copyright? And what would it mean for SDOs and the development of future standards by third parties if that were the case?
The court, however, chose to avoid these questions. It gave several reasons for this avoidance, including that a ruling on the copyrightability of incorporated standards could have a significant economic effect on those SDOs, [p. 16], and also that it’s generally considered better practice for courts to decide cases on grounds other than constitutional ones [p. 15]. (As Public Resource and amici pointed out, not being able to post the law for people governed by it to read raises significant First Amendment and due process concerns, which would mean that the question of if the law could be copyrighted may be a constitutional one.) [p. 14-15].
Avoiding the constitutional question is all the more pressing here given that the record reveals so little about the nature of any given incorporation or what a constitutional ruling would mean for any particular standard. After all, it is one thing to declare that ?the law? cannot be copyrighted but wholly another to determine whether any one of these incorporated standards?from the legally binding prerequisite to a labeling requirement, see 42 U.S.C. § 17021(b)(1), to the purely discretionary reference procedure, see 40 C.F.R. § 86.113-04(a)(1)?actually constitutes ?the law.? [p. 15-16]
Instead the court chose to find for Public Resource on fair use grounds. [p.17] Or at least put Public Resource in a position to ultimately prevail on those grounds. Although the court lifted the injunctions the district court had placed on it ? injunctions that had forced Public Resource to remove from its site actual, operative, mandatory law binding on the public ? the case still needs to go back to the district court because the appeals court didn’t think it had a sufficiently developed record before it to itself fully perform its own fair use analysis. It did, however, give the district court a head start, with enough instruction of how to perform that analysis to make it likely to yield a favorable result for Public Resource on remand.
In this section, we review each of the fair use factors, and, as we shall explain, though there is reason to believe ?as a matter of law? that PRO?s reproduction of certain standards ?qualif[ies] as a fair use of the copyrighted work,? id. (internal quotations and citations omitted), we ultimately think the better course is to remand the case for the district court to further develop the factual record and weigh the factors as applied to PRO?s use of each standard in the first instance. As we have emphasized, the standards here and the modes of their incorporation vary too widely to conclusively tell goose apart from gander, and the record is just too thin to tell what went into the sauce. On remand, the district court will need to develop a fuller record regarding the nature of each of the standards at issue, the way in which they are incorporated, and the manner and extent to which they were copied by PRO in order to resolve this ?mixed question of law and fact.? Id. This is not to say that the district court must analyze each standard individually. Instead, it might consider directing the parties, who poorly served the court by treating the standards interchangeably, to file briefs addressing whether the standards are susceptible to groupings that are relevant to the fair use analysis. [p. 19]
Overall, this is a good result for Public Resource. And far be it for me to rain on Carl Malamud and his legal team’s well-deserved parade, it’s still important to point out why, although this D.C. Circuit decision is a good one, it could have been better.
For one thing, the parties have already litigated a lengthy trial. And their prize for finally winning the pie eating contest now is more pie. That litigating fair use is so arduous, even for as well-counseled a defendant as Public Resource, is a significant problem. As Lawrence Lessig has observed, “Fair use is only the right to hire a lawyer.” Fair use is of little value for worthy defendants who might ultimately win infringement cases on those grounds if they can get obliterated by the litigation defending themselves along the way. Which is one reason why the D.C. Circuit’s refusal to evaluate the core copyrightability grounds is a troubling one, because while Public Resource may ultimately prevail, what about anyone else who similarly decides to publish the law that also incorporates standards?
Furthermore, while the court’s interest in ensuring that Public Resource could survive a subsequent fair use inquiry is great for Public Resource, and there is nothing in the decision to suggest that it is only Public Resource that should get to, it won’t be helpful if the way the court framed each of the fair use factors in order to ensure it could reach Public Resource can’t be of use to other defendants not exactly like Public Resource but with their own plausible fair use defenses. Certain language in particular does give some pause, such as the hostility towards some of Public Resource’s transformative uses.
On this point, the district court properly rejected some of PRO?s arguments as to its transformative use?for instance, that PRO was converting the works into a format more accessible for the visually impaired or that it was producing a centralized database of all incorporated standards. [p. 21 (citing American Geophysical Union v. Texaco Inc., 60 F.3d 913, 923?24 (2d Cir. 1994)]
On the other hand, much of its reasoning is necessarily flexible enough to reach other defendants so that they, too, can have the four factors balanced in their favor. For the same reasons the court found the idea distasteful that Public Resource should be prevented from sharing the law, it would be similarly distasteful if others were similarly prevented. In addition, should another defendant have difficulty showing its use is fair, the court also left open the possibility that the underlying copyrightability of the standards incorporated into law could still be challenged.
To be sure, it may later turn out that PRO and others use incorporated standards in a manner not encompassed by the fair use doctrine, thereby again raising the question of whether the authors of such works can maintain their copyright at all. [p. 16]
The concurrence by Judge Katsas provides additional reassurance. First, he reiterated that the Section 102(b) and Constitutional questions raised by someone claiming copyright over parts of published law remain unresolved and may yet be resolved in a way that dispels these claims. [Katsas concurrence p. 3]. He also provided some additional framing for the fair use analysis, noting that “it puts a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of an unrestrained ability to say what the law is.” [Katsas concurrence p. 2]
Thus, when an incorporated standard sets forth binding legal obligations, and when the defendant does no more and no less than disseminate an exact copy of it, three of the four relevant factors?purpose and character of the use, nature of the copyrighted work, and amount and substantiality of the copying?are said to weigh ?heavily? or ?strongly? in favor of fair use. [?] The Court acknowledges the thinness of the record in this case, and it appropriately flags potentially complicating questions about how particular standards may be incorporated into law, and whether such standards, as so incorporated, actually constitute ?the law.? But, where a particular standard is incorporated as a binding legal obligation, and where the defendant has done nothing more than disseminate it, the Court leaves little doubt that the dissemination amounts to fair use. [Katas concurrence p. 2]
In other words, despite the above concerns, the decision will still make it harder for future plaintiffs to try to lock people out of sharing the law on copyright grounds, as it is not something that, at least in the D.C. Circuit, will be looked upon with a friendly eye.
Meanwhile, there is also some additional good news from this case on the trademark front. Public Resource had included the trademarks of the SDOs behind the incorporated standards, and the SDOs (and district court) believed this use of the marks to be infringing. The D.C. Circuit disagreed, however, and found it possible that Public Resource’s use of the trademarks could qualify as nominative fair use, which “occurs when the defendant uses the plaintiff?s trademark to identify the plaintiff?s own goods and ?makes it clear to consumers that the plaintiff, not the defendant, is the source of the trademarked product or service.?? [p. 33-34] This issue, too, was remanded back to the trial court, although with the admonition that if the trial court should again find Public Resource’s use to be infringing, it should potentially refrain from issuing another injunction barring all use of the trademark and instead consider whether merely modifying the use would be an adequate remedy. [p.36-37].