from the some-good,-some-bad dept
We’ve been following Capitol Records’ (EMI) lawsuit against MP3Tunes and Michael Robertson for a long time now, in part because the lawsuit has been going on forever, with lots of back and forth (and it’s still at the district court level!). Back in March, the jury hit Robertson with a bill for over $40 million for his personal involvement with MP3Tunes. As we noted, there were plenty of issues with the ruling, especially with the idea that MP3Tunes was “willfully blind” in creating its music locker. Robertson challenged many of the jury’s findings, and we noted that the most important one was the willful blindness.
The judge, William Pauley, has now ruled and it’s a mixed bag of just about everything, including the judge berating both parties for their approach to this lawsuit. On the whole, Robertson still loses big time, but not quite as big as before. And, on the issue we found most important — willful blindness — the judge has overruled the jury, noting that under the standard in the Viacom v. YouTube case, MP3Tunes was not willfully blind (except for one track where they had been alerted to an infringing copy). That’s big and very important, given the potential chilling effects the willful blindness ruling would have had on other startups in the digital locker space.
Red flag knowledge requires awareness of facts that would have made specific instances of infringement objectively obvious to a reasonable person…. General knowledge is insufficient. For example, knowledge that a high percentage of content on a domain is infringing does not establish actual or red flag knowledge of particular instances of infringement…. In this case, MP3tunes lacked even general knowledge. Even if MP3tunes tracked domains posting infringing files, a fact not in evidence…, MP3tunes would still need to investigate how much content the domain hosted before it could calculate what percentage was infringing.
To ascribe red flag knowledge to MP3tunes because it was possible for MP3tunes to research and identify other instances of infringing content hosted by these domains and sideloaded by users would “mandate an amorphous obligation to ‘take commercially reasonable steps’ in response to generalized awareness of infringement.” … But the DMCA imposes a duty on providers to track repeat infringement by users, not third parties….
The same reasoning disposes of the willful blindness argument. Imputing knowledge to MP3tunes would impose an obligation to affirmatively monitor content, which would contravene section 512(m)’s clear instruction that no such obligation exists…. Therefore, Robertson’s motion for judgment as a matter of law is granted as to his liability for secondary infringement of tracks sideloaded by users from these domains.
This is the good news from the ruling. Robertson also more or less won on the issue of whether or not the cover art images that showed up in MP3Tunes were infringing. That was one of the many ridiculous side notes in the whole thing.
One other thing that turned out somewhat well was on the question of whether some of the penalties given to Robertson by the jury were unconstitutionally excessive. This is a claim that has previously been tried (unsuccessfully) in the famed Jamie Thomas Rasset and Joel Tenenbaum trials. But here, it actually worked somewhat. The court goes through the different factors to determine if a monetary award is excessive, given the actual harm, and concludes:
Viewed holistically, the punitive damages award violates due process.
Still, the judge argues there’s plenty of reasons to punish Robertson, just not to the punitive damages tune of $7.5 million as the jury originally decided. The court reduces that to $750,000, but offers EMI the chance to hold yet another trial just over this issue (which would only add yet another chapter in this incredibly long saga). And of course, none of this even touches on the possibility of appeals (from both sides), which may still happen…
However, there’s plenty of worrisome aspects to this new ruling as well. After the willful blindness issue, our biggest concern was the tertiary liability claims that EMI was making against Robertson. That is, we’ve now seen that secondary liability is a possible for copyright infringement (i.e., you can be guilty for someone else’s infringement), even though that makes little sense. However, in this case, EMI advanced an even more tenuous argument: that Robertson was tertiarily liable for MP3Tunes’ secondary liability of its users direct infringement. Unfortunately, the judge says this is fine, arguing that while the judge in the Napster case rejected such a theory, the judge in the Limewire case accepted it, and thus “tertiary liability” is a perfectly reasonable thing. That’s going to have some serious chilling effects — just wait and see.
The court also makes one interesting note concerning the Aereo ruling. EMI sought to use the Aereo ruling as evidence that MP3Tunes was guilty of “public performance” of the works as well, but the judge (thankfully) shut that down, noting that the Supreme Court in Aereo was clear that the ruling only applied narrowly to that specific case:
Plaintiffs also argue that the Supreme court’s opinion in Aereo establishes that the third-party websites performed the work publicly. But the Supreme Court expressly excluded “novel issues not before the Court, as to which ‘Congress has not plainly marked [the] course.'” … Because the third-party domains here are not “substantially similar” to a community antenna television provider, they are beyond Aereo’s reach.
Phew. Aereo bullet dodged there, for now.
Then we get around to the berating. The judge gets on the EMI execs’ cases for how they treated the case, and their ongoing refusal to reveal the dates of the releases of various songs, despite being asked repeatedly. But the real slamming comes for Robertson, who apparently put on quite a show on the witness stand. While that may work in Hollywood movies, or made-for-CNN trials, it doesn’t often work in real life, and it appears not to have worked here. The judge’s own description of Robertson’s appearance indicates that no one bought the performance at all:
This Court observed Robertson’s demeanor on the witness stand. No transcript can capture his whole affect; you really had to be there.
The judge then reposts Robertson’s somewhat lengthy and bizarre discussion of childhood abuse, which seemed to serve no purpose other than to (try to) tug at the heartstrings of the jury. The court (and the jury) were not impressed:
This seemingly rehearsed, five-minute fable-like narrative left the jury nonplussed and Plaintiffs’ counsel shell-shocked. It was a dramatic presentation. Even if true, Robertson’s decision to spin this yarn backfired on him. The jury saw it for what it was–a transparent attempt to tug at their heartstrings. Plainfiffs’ counsel failed to appreciate what the jury grasped and reflexively moved for a mistrial claiming unfair prejudice. But Robertson’s manipulative conduct only prejudiced him and that prejudice was not unfair. In denying Plaintiffs’ motion, this Court observed “[j]urors see through performances, and the Oscars are over for this year.” The jury’s verdict demonstrated that this Court’s observation was spot on.