Monkey See, Monkey Sue: Ninth Circuit Finds Naruto Cannot Sue Under Copyright Act

Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel affirmed dismissal of copyright infringement claims brought on behalf of a macaque monkey, Naruto, against a wildlife photographer. The Court found that Naruto had Constitutional standing to file suit, but that he could not maintain an action under the Copyright Act. Naruto v. Slater, No. 16-15469.

In 2011, Naruto, then a seven-year-old crested macaque living in Indonesia, took several pictures of himself with a camera that had been left unattended by wildlife photographer David Slater.  Slater subsequently published these “monkey selfies” in a book.  In 2015, PETA filed a complaint on Naruto’s behalf alleging copyright infringement, which a district court in California dismissed.

Affirming dismissal, the Ninth Circuit found that PETA did not have standing as “next-friend” of Naruto because animals cannot be represented by “next friends” absent express statutory authorization and PETA had failed to allege that it had a significant relationship with Naruto.  The Court also criticized PETA for seeking dismissal of Naruto’s appeal after PETA entered into a settlement agreement with the photographer following oral argument in the case.  Since the settlement did not include Naruto as a party, the settlement and subsequent motion gave the appearance that Naruto was being used for PETA’s institutional interests, which undermined PETA’s attempt to establish itself as Naruto’s next friend.

Relying on a prior decision of the Ninth Circuit from 2004, Cetacean Community v. Bush however, the court held that Naruto had Constitutional standing on his own to sue.  In Catacean Community, the Ninth Circuit found that the world’s whales, dolphins, and porpoises, had standing to sue through their self-appointed attorney.  The panel in Naruto’s case criticized that earlier decision as “wrongly decided,” but ruled that they were bound by it until the full Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court revisited it.

Ultimately, however, the Court found that the language of the Copyright Act did not authorize animals to file copyright infringement suits.  The Court emphasized that a lawsuit by an animal is only allowable if the statute specifically permits it –  a rule meant to prevent monkey business.

For more information on animal law, intellectual property, constitutional or statutory standing, or the implications of Naruto, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Director of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group at keinhorn@genovaburns.com, or Jennifer Borek, Esq., a Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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“Blurred Lines” Infringes Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up”, Ninth Circuit Holds

Yesterday, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals largely affirmed a trial court judgment finding that Pharrell Williams, Clifford Harris and Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit single “Blurred Lines” infringed upon the defendants’ copyright in Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give it Up.” Williams v. Gaye, No. 15-56800.

The decision of the panel majority (Judges Milan D. Smith and Mary Murguia) is a cautionary tale of how the procedural posture of a case can be outcome determinative. The majority held that following a full trial on the merits, the appeals court could not review the trial court’s earlier denial of a summary judgment motion.  The issues to be resolved were not purely legal, the majority continued, and the factual issues hotly disputed by the parties’ experts. Because of the full trial, the majority concluded that they could not conduct its own summary judgment analysis.

The Court then reviewed the verdict and found there was no basis to overturn the jury’s decision as it related to the Thicke Parties because there was sufficient evidence from which they could conclude that Williams, Harris and Thicke had access to Gaye’s work and the two songs were substantially similar. After a jury verdict, the Court continued, an appellate court cannot weigh the evidence for itself and make credibility rulings on the parties’ experts.

The dissent (Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen) decried the majority’s opinion as allowing Gaye to “to accomplish what no one has before: copyright a musical style” and setting “a dangerous precedent that strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere.” Though there are some similarities between the songs, the dissent contended, most of the similarities were short patterns that are not themselves protectable under the copyright laws. The dissent warned that the majorities’ decision will stifle creativity as copyright law is only meant to protect authors’ expression as opposed to the idea underlying that expression.

Williams, Harris and Thicke now have the option of asking for review from the entire Ninth Circuit or seeking review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

For more information on copyright law or the  Ninth Circuit’s decision, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Director of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group at keinhorn@genovaburns.com, or Jennifer Borek, Esq., a Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for Awarding Attorneys’ Fees to Successful Copyright Litigants.

On June 16, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous decision, clarified the standard for awarding attorneys’ fees under the Copyright Act.

This is the second time the case of Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, No. 15-375, has come before the Supreme Court.  Kitrsaeng was sued by respondent John Wiley & Sons, Inc., a textbook publisher. Kirtsaeng won the first Supreme Court appeal, which resulted in a clarification of the “first sale” doctrine.  Having prevailed, Kirtsaeng sought more than $2 million in attorney’s fees under § 505 of the Copyright Act.  The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of this request, finding that Wiley had taken reasonable positions throughout litigation, and awarding fees would not serve the Copyright Act’s underlying purpose—enriching the public through access to creative works.

Although the Copyright Act gives the district court discretion to award attorneys’ fees, the Supreme Court emphasized that the discretion must be exercised under set standards to increase the predictability of the result for both plaintiffs and defendants.

The Supreme Court noted that the Second Circuit appeared to focus solely on the objective reasonableness of the parties’ litigation positions, which is an important factor, but not the only factor to be considered.   By focusing too narrowly on the parties’ litigation positions, a court may lose sight of the goals of the Copyright Act. The Court acknowledged the fundamental nature of litigation, that “both plaintiffs and defendants can (and sometimes do) make unreasonable arguments,” a fact which “favors plaintiffs because a losing defendant will virtually always be found to have done something culpable.” Slip op. at 9 (emphasis in original).

In addition to the objective reasonableness of the parties’ litigation positions, the Supreme Court held that lower courts should address “a range of considerations,” including, frivolousness, motivation, objective reasonableness, and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence.  “Although objective reasonableness carries significant weight, courts must view all the circumstances of a case on their own terms, in light of the Copyright Act’s essential goals.” Slip op. at 11.

Because it was unclear if the Second Circuit (or district court) considered all of these factors, the Supreme Court vacated and remanded, emphasizing, however, that it was not suggesting that any different outcome would necessarily occur in this case.

For more information regarding the Copyright Act or Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Director of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group at keinhorn@genovaburns.com, or Jennifer Borek, Esq., a Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group at jborek@genovaburns.com.

 

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