from the potentially-problematic dept
The details here do matter. The defendant, lawyer Ezra Sutton, had worked alongside Newegg in one of the many patent troll lawsuits. Sutton was representing another company sued in the same lawsuit as Newegg by a patent troll, Adjustacam. They had won the case against the troll, and both Newegg and the company Sutton represented, Sakar International, filed motions seeking attorneys' fees. Here's where things get iffy on Sutton's part, as described by Alison Frankel via the Reuters link above:
As Newegg general counsel Lee Cheng recounts the story, he told Sutton early on that Newegg would be willing to file a joint brief with Sakar if Sakar paid a share of the legal fees. Sutton said no thanks, but, as the filing deadline approached, he came back to Newegg. Cheng agreed to show Sutton a draft of the brief Newegg intended to submit to the Federal Circuit to help him write a complementary brief for Sakar.So, first off, what a shitty thing to do by Sutton. I think that's pretty clear. At the very least it potentially would have made a mess for Newegg who would have looked bad filing a nearly identical brief to Sutton's after he did. But, then there's the question of what to do about it. Newegg decided to sue Sutton for copyright infringement -- and this is where I'm a lot less comfortable with Newegg's decision. I think it's the wrong move.
Instead, the day before Newegg’s brief was due, Sutton filed a brief that was largely copied from Newegg’s draft. When Newegg realized what he’d done and protested the filing, Sutton withdrew the brief and subsequently filed a shorter version focused on Sakar’s argument.
We've actually discussed the question of whether or not legal briefs should be subject to copyright before. A few years ago, some lawyers sued the big legal publishing companies, Westlaw and LexisNexis, for republishing briefs when they published compendiums of cases. That was ridiculous, and thankfully the court tossed out the lawsuit, finding that the republishing in this case was easily fair use.
Admittedly the facts in Newegg's case against Sutton are very different. This isn't republishing dockets for lawyers and scholars to access and review. The situation here seemed more like plagiarism, with Sutton more or less trying to take credit for Newegg's work (which had the knock on effect of potentially making Newegg look bad). And I get all of that, but it still troubles me that copyright was the tool here. It feels inappropriate. Copyright is supposed to be about the incentives to create. And no one needs a copyright incentive to create a legal brief -- something that Newegg's Cheng agreed about when I reached out to him about this case. He more or less admits that they're just using copyright here for a clearly non-copyright purpose. As he told me:
"We didn't file this case for profit or money. It's for principle and justice (corny but those values truly motivate me). However, we do believe that Sutton's action did cause us monetary harm and that we are entitled to remedies, but it clearly wasn't the focus of this suit. This suit was to send a message, strictly directed at unethical and lazy lawyers, to do what they learned in the first year of law school in terms of properly crediting others' work, and to do what anyone with common decency would do. Lawyers should be held to, and should hold themselves to, higher rather than lower standards."I don't disagree with any of that -- but it's still troubling to me that copyright is the tool here, because that's a decidedly non-copyright thing that it's being used for. In fact, this seems to be one of those situations where the complaint is really about plagiarism rather than copyright, but where there's enough overlap that the legal mechanism of copyright is enabled to come into play. I fear that this will then be used by others in even more abusive ways -- though Cheng seems confident that the specific facts of this case would likely limit such a potential result.
I'm even bothered a bit by the fair use analysis here where the judge denied Sutton's fair use claims. I would think that the question of whether or not a legal brief should be covered by copyright would be a pretty big factor here. And the judge does agree that this point weighs somewhat in Sutton's favor (and points to that earlier case). The judge also finds, correctly, that the 4th factor -- the impact on the market -- weighs in favor of Sutton since Newegg doesn't have a market for selling its legal briefs. But while many courts often point to that 4th factor as a key one, this court basically just decides that it doesn't matter as much:
Upon consideration of all four factors, with more weight given to the first and third factors based on the facts, circumstances and particular nature of this case, Sutton did not meet his burden of establishing a prima facie case that his copying of Newegg’s draft brief was fair use.So, yes, he's saying because of the specific facts in this case, but it does feel like -- as is all too often the case in fair use cases -- the judge has basically determined what result he wants, and then weighs the four factors accordingly. Admittedly, this might not be a huge deal. The facts are pretty specific, and plagiarizing is sleazy. But, I'm still troubled with the use of copyright to punish even sleazy behavior if it's not related to the reasons for copyright existing.