Justia Copyright Opinion Summaries

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Designworks filed suit alleging that defendants violated its copyright in the registered design of a two-story home. The district court granted summary judgment for defendants, concluding that defendants' home design was not a copy of the original Designworks home.The Eighth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the district court did not err in granting defendants' motion for summary judgment because the works were so dissimilar that reasonable minds could not differ as to the absence of substantial similarity in expression in the designs. The court explained that there was no direct evidence of copyright infringement and there was no evidence of a substantial similarity of expression in the designs. In this case, the district court's order emphasized how unreasonable Designworks' litigating position had been, from completely failing to address the "significant objective differences" between the designs to producing nothing more than speculative evidence that anyone associated with defendants had accessed the Designworks house. The court also affirmed the district court's award of attorneys' fees and costs to defendants. View "Designworks Homes, Inc. v. Thomson Sailors Homes, LLC" on Justia Law

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Charles James and Designworks filed suit against real estate companies, as well as their affiliates and agents, claiming that defendants infringed their copyrights when they created and published certain floorplans without authorization. The district court granted defendants summary judgment on the infringement claims, as well as on plaintiffs' claims for contributory and vicarious copyright infringement.The Eighth Circuit held that the copyright statute, 17 U.S.C. 120(a), does not provide a defense to a claim of infringement for real estate companies, their agents, and their contractors when they generate and publish floorplans of homes they list for sale. The court reasoned that the terms Congress used in section 120(a) have a certain quality in common—they all connote artistic expression. The court explained that floorplans, like the ones here, serve a functional purpose. The court noted that its decision does not preclude the district court on remand from considering whether some other defense might apply or whether plaintiffs have demonstrated a claim of copyright infringement in the first place. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court's grants of summary judgment to defendants on the primary infringement claim as well as on the claims for contributory and vicarious infringement, vacated the district court's orders awarding defendants costs and attorney's fees, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Designworks Homes, Inc. v. Columbia House of Brokers Realty, Inc." on Justia Law

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Kelley wanted to publish “Hooker to Looker,” to promote her cosmetics business. Di Angelo agreed to publish and distribute Kelley’s then-unwritten Book, with Kelly receiving 50 percent of the net royalties. Kelley provided Di Angelo with a three-page manuscript, detailing her background and outlining the Book’s topics. Di Angelo claims it wrote the Book while “communicating and/or collaborating with Kelley.” The Book Di Angelo distributed lists only Kelley as the copyright holder. Di Angelo sold the initial 1,000-copy print run. Kelley asked Di Angelo for an updated version. Di Angelo alleges that it prepared the updated work, then discovered that Kelley was attempting to work directly with Di Angelo’s printer, in violation of the contract.Kelley sued, claiming that Di Angelo overcharged her and alleging that she “is the sole owner of all copyrights.” Di Angelo counterclaimed for breach of contract. That state court action is pending. Di Angelo filed a federal suit, seeking a declaration that it owns the copyrights. Kelley challenged federal jurisdiction, arguing the claim was premised solely on her alleged breach of the contract, a controversy governed by Texas law. Di Angelo claimed resolution of the authorship dispute required interpretation of federal copyright law, including the definitional and ownership provisions in 17 U.S.C. 101 & 201, which the state court lacks jurisdiction to address. The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the suit. Di Angelo’s claim necessarily implicates federal law definitions of “Initial ownership” and “Works made for hire.” View "Di Angelo Publications, Inc. v. Kelley" on Justia Law

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A jury awarded plaintiffs, the adult children and heirs of songwriter Terry Gilkyson, $350,000 based on its finding that Disney, and its music publishing subsidiary Wonderland, had failed to pay contractually required royalties in connection with certain limited uses of "The Bare Necessities" and several other Gilkyson-composed songs in home entertainment releases of Walt Disney Productions's 1967 animated film The Jungle Book. The trial court then awarded an additional $699,316.40 as damages for the period subsequent to the jury's verdict through the duration of the songs’ copyrights. Both parties appealed.The Court of Appeal agreed with Disney that interpretation of its agreements with Gilkyson is subject to de novo review; Gilkyson's right to receive royalties from exploitation of the mechanical reproduction rights in "The Bare Necessities" and other songs he wrote for The Jungle Book was dependent on Wonderland receiving payment for such exploitation; and the express language of the contracts granted Disney sole discretion to decide how to exploit the material, including whether a fee should be charged for Disney's own use of the material in home entertainment releases. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded with instructions to enter a judgment in favor of Disney. View "Gilkyson v. Disney Enterprises, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals concluding that "a governmental unit's copyright infringement is not a taking" and that, therefore, the trial court erred in denying a plea to the jurisdiction, holding that the violation of a copyright, without more, is not a taking of the copyright.Plaintiff, a professional photographer, sued the University of Houston, alleging that the University's publication of his photograph was an unlawful taking. The University filed a plea to the jurisdiction, asserting immunity under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. After the trial court denied the plea, the University brought this interlocutory appeal. The court of appeals vacated the trial court's order denying the plea and dismissed the cause for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, holding that a governmental unit's copyright infringement is not a taking. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) factual allegations of an infringement do not alone allege a taking; and (2) the court of appeals did not err in sustaining the jurisdictional plea and dismissing the case because the State retained its immunity in the absence of a properly pled takings claim. View "Jim Olive Photography v. University of Houston System" on Justia Law

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The Kerstiens family runs companies that build single-family homes out of Jasper, Indiana. Plan Pros and Prime Designs are home design companies that license their plans through Design Basics, which acts as a broker, serving as an intermediary between home builders and design firms. Design Basics markets the thousands of plans it holds copyrights to through trade publications, promotional materials placed in home improvement stores, and national builder associations and “has become a serial litigant,” having filed more than 100 infringement suits against home builders.In affirming the dismissal of Design Basic’s suit against the Kerstiens, the Seventh Circuit referred to “intellectual property trolls,” enforcing copyrights not to protect expression, but to extract payments through litigation. Design Basics has thin copyright in its plans because they consist largely of standard features found in homes across America. View "Design Basics, LLC v. Kerstiens Homes & Designs, Inc" on Justia Law

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The First Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court concluding that the board game "The Game of Life" qualified as a "work for hire" under the Copyright Act of 1909.This case stemmed from a dispute between Rueben Klamer, a toy developer who came up with the initial concept of the game before it was introduced in 1960 by the Milton Bradley Company, and Bill Markham, a game designer that Klamer recruited to design and create the actual game prototype. Markham's successors-in-interest sued Klamer and other defendants seeking a declaration that they possessed "termination rights" under the 1976 Copyright Act. Termination rights, however, do not extend to "work[s] made for hire." The district court concluded that the game was a work for hire, and therefore, Markham's successors-in-interest lacked termination rights. The First Circuit affirmed, holding that the game was a work for hire and that no termination rights existed. View "Markham Concepts, Inc. v. Hasbro, Inc." on Justia Law

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Design Basics is a copyright troll and holds registered copyrights in thousands of floor plans for suburban, single-family tract homes. Its employees trawl the Internet in search of targets for strategic infringement suits of questionable merit, hoping to secure “prompt settlements with defendants who would prefer to pay modest or nuisance settlements rather than be tied up in expensive litigation.” The Seventh Circuit has previously (Lexington Homes) held that Design Basics’ copyright in its floor plans is thin. The designs consist mainly of unprotectable stock elements—a few bedrooms, a kitchen, a great room, etc. Much of their content is dictated by functional considerations and existing design conventions for affordable, suburban, single-family homes. When copyright in an architectural work is thin, only a “strikingly similar” work gives rise to a possible infringement claim.Design Basics sued Signature Construction for copying 10 of its registered floor plans for suburban, single-family homes. The district court granted Signature summary judgment based largely on the reasoning of Lexington Homes. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. For this category of claims, only extremely close copying is actionable as unlawful infringement. That standard is not satisfied in this case. View "Design Basics, LLC v. Signature Construction, Inc." on Justia Law

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The First Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of Marvic d/b/a Brady-Built Sunrooms (Marvic) and dismissing Cynthia Foss's state law claims, holding that the district court did not err.Foss, a graphic designer, created a brochure for Marvic to use in marketing its sunrooms. Twelve years later, Foss brought a complaint alleging a federal claim for copyright infringement and pendent state law claims. The federal district court entered three separate rulings at issue on appeal: it granted Marvic's motion to dismiss Foss's copyright claim, it denied Foss's motion to withdraw certain statements that the court had deemed admitted, and it granted Marvic's motion for summary judgment on Foss's state law claims. The First Circuit affirmed, holding that the district court did not err or abuse its discretion as to the disputed rulings. View "Foss v. Marvic, Inc." on Justia Law

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Oracle owns a copyright in Java SE, a computer platform. Google acquired Android and sought to build a new software platform for mobile devices. To allow millions of programmers familiar with Java to work with its new platform, Google copied roughly 11,500 lines of code from Java SE. The copied lines allow programmers to call upon prewritten computing tasks for use in their own programs. The Federal Circuit held that the copied lines were copyrightable and reversed a jury’s finding of fair use.The Supreme Court reversed. Google’s copying of code lines needed to allow programmers to put their talents to work in a transformative program was fair use as a matter of law. Copyright protection cannot extend to “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery,” 17 U.S.C. 102(b), and a copyright holder may not prevent another from making a “fair use” of a copyrighted work.Assuming that the copied lines can be copyrighted, the Court focused on “fair use.” The “right of trial by jury” does not include the right to have a jury resolve a fair use defense. Unlike other types of code, much of the copied material's value derives from the investment of users (computer programmers) who have learned the system; application of fair use here is unlikely to undermine the general copyright protection for computer programs. The “purpose and character” of this use is transformative. Google copied only about 0.4 percent of the entire program at issue and that was tethered to a valid, transformative, purpose. Google’s new smartphone platform is not a market substitute for Java SE; the copyright holder would benefit from the reimplementation of its interface into a different market. Enforcing the copyright on these facts risks causing creativity-related harms to the public. View "Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc." on Justia Law