Goldman v. Breitbart News Network LLC et al.
OPINION & ORDER re: 119 MOTION for Partial Summary Judgment -- Defendants' Notice of Motion for Partial Summary Judgment filed by Yahoo, Inc. For the reasons stated above, defendants' motion for partial Summary Judgment is DENIED. The Court GRANTS partial Summary Judgment to the plaintiff. The Clerk of Court is directed to terminate the motion at ECF No. 119. SO ORDERED. (Signed by Judge Katherine B. Forrest on 2/15/2018) (mml)
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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
BREITBART NEWS NETWORK, LLC,
HEAVY, INC., TIME, INC., YAHOO, INC.,
VOX MEDIA, INC., GANNETT COMPANY,
INC., HERALD MEDIA, INC., BOSTON
GLOBE MEDIA PARTNERS, INC., and NEW :
ENGLAND SPORTS NETWORK, INC.,
DOC #: _________________
DATE FILED: February 15, 2018
OPINION & ORDER
KATHERINE B. FORREST, District Judge:
When the Copyright Act was amended in 1976, the words “tweet,” “viral,” and
“embed” invoked thoughts of a bird, a disease, and a reporter. Decades later, these
same terms have taken on new meanings as the centerpieces of an interconnected
world wide web in which images are shared with dizzying speed over the course of
any given news day. That technology and terminology change means that, from
time to time, questions of copyright law will not be altogether clear. In answering
questions with previously uncontemplated technologies, however, the Court must
not be distracted by new terms or new forms of content, but turn instead to familiar
guiding principles of copyright. In this copyright infringement case, concerning a
candid photograph of a famous sports figure, the Court must construe how images
shown on one website but stored on another website’s server implicate an owner’s
exclusive display right.
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Today, many websites embed Twitter posts into their own content; for those
familiar with digital news or other content, this is common knowledge. Here,
plaintiff Justin Goldman’s copyrighted photo of Tom Brady went “viral”—rapidly
moving from Snapchat to Reddit to Twitter—and finally, made its way onto the
websites of the defendants, who embedded the Tweet alongside articles they wrote
about Tom Brady actively helping the Boston Celtics recruit basketball player
Plaintiff, claiming he never publicly released or licensed his photograph, filed
suit against the defendant websites, claiming a violation of his exclusive right to
display his photo, under § 106(5) of the Copyright Act.
With the consent of the parties, this Court divided the litigation into two
phases—the first to determine whether defendants’ actions violate the exclusive
right to display a work (here an embedded Tweet), and the second to deal with all
remaining issues, such as the liability (or non-liability) for other defendants and
any defenses that have been raised.
Defendants filed a motion for partial Summary Judgment on October 5, 2017.
(ECF No. 119.) The Court heard oral argument on January 16, 2018.
Having carefully considered the embedding issue, this Court concludes, for
the reasons discussed below, that when defendants caused the embedded Tweets to
appear on their websites, their actions violated plaintiff’s exclusive display right;
the fact that the image was hosted on a server owned and operated by an unrelated
third party (Twitter) does not shield them from this result.
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Accordingly, defendants’ motion for partial Summary Judgment is DENIED.
Partial Summary Judgment is GRANTED to the plaintiff.
The parties agree that the principle issue briefed on this motion is a legal one
and amenable to summary judgment. The following facts are materially undisputed
and all inferences are drawn in favor of the plaintiff. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).
A. The Tom Brady Photo
On July 2, 2016, plaintiff Justin Goldman snapped a photograph of Tom
Brady (the “Photo”), Danny Ainge, and others on the street in East Hampton. (ECF
No. 149, Goldman Declaration (“Goldman Decl.”) ¶ 2.) Shortly thereafter, he
uploaded the photograph to his Snapchat Story. 1 (Id. ¶ 5.) The Photo then went
“viral,” traveling through several levels of social media platforms—and finally onto
Twitter, where it was uploaded by several users, including Cassidy Hubbarth
(@cassidyhubbarth), Bobby Manning (@RealBobManning), Rob H (@rch111), and
Travis Singleton (@SneakerReporter). (Id. ¶ 6–10; ECF No. 120, Defendants’
Statement of Undisputed Facts Pursuant to Local Rule 56.1 (“Defs.’ 56.1
Statement”) ¶ 28.) These uploads onto Twitter are referred to as “Tweets.”
Defendants in this case are online news outlets and blogs who published
articles featuring the Photo. Each of defendants’ websites prominently featured the
Photo by “embedding” the Tweet into articles they wrote over the course of the next
1 Snapchat is a social media platform where users share photographs and messages; a Snapchat
story is a series of photos a user posts—each photo is available for twenty-four hours only.
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forty-eight hours; the articles were all focused on the issue of whether the Boston
Celtics would successfully recruit basketball player Kevin Durant, and if Tom
Brady would help to seal the deal.
It is undisputed that plaintiff holds the copyright to the Photo.
None of the defendant websites copied and saved the Photo onto their own
servers. Rather, they made the Photo visible in their articles through a technical
process known as “embedding.” Some background is helpful to an understanding of
the embedding process.
A webpage is made up of a series of instructions usually written by coders in
Hypertext Markup Language (“HTML”). These instructions are saved to a server (a
computer connected to the internet), and when a user wishes to view a webpage, his
or her computer’s browser connects with the server, at which point the HTML code
previously written by the coder instructs the browser on how to arrange the
webpage on the user’s computer. The HTML code can allow for the arrangement of
text and/or images on a page and can also include photographs. When including a
photograph on a web page, the HTML code instructs the browser how and where to
place the photograph. Importantly for this case, the HTML code could instruct the
browser either to retrieve the photograph from the webpage’s own server or to
retrieve it from a third-party server.
“Embedding” an image on a webpage is the act of a coder intentionally adding
a specific “embed” code to the HTML instructions that incorporates an image,
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hosted on a third-party server, onto a webpage. To embed an image, the coder or
web designer would add an “embed code” to the HTML instructions; this code
directs the browser to the third-party server to retrieve the image. An embedded
image will then hyperlink (that is, create a link from one place in a hypertext
document to another in a different document) to the third-party website. The
result: a seamlessly integrated webpage, a mix of text and images, although the
underlying images may be hosted in varying locations. Most social media sites—
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, for example—provide code that coders and web
designers can easily copy in order to enable embedding on their own webpages.
Here, it is undisputed that none of the defendant websites actually
downloaded the Photo from Twitter, copied it, and stored it on their own servers.
Rather, each defendant website merely embedded the Photo, by including the
necessary embed code in their HTML instructions. As a result, all of defendants’
websites included articles about the meeting between Tom Brady and the Celtics,
with the full-size Photo visible without the user having to click on a hyperlink, or a
thumbnail, in order to view the Photo.
A. Summary Judgment Standard
This Court applies the well-known summary judgment standard set forth in
Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Summary Judgment may not be
granted unless a movant shows, based on admissible evidence in the record, “that
there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to
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judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The moving party bears the
initial burden of demonstrating “the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.”
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). When the moving party does not
bear the ultimate burden on a particular claim or issue, it need only make a
showing that the non-moving party lacks evidence from which a reasonable jury
could find in the non-moving party’s favor at trial. Id. at 322–23.
In making a determination on summary judgment, the court must “construe
all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all
inferences and resolving all ambiguities in its favor.” Dickerson v. Napolitano, 604
F.3d 732, 740 (2d Cir. 2010) (citing LaSalle Bank Nat’l Ass’n v. Nomura Asset
Capital Corp., 424 F.3d 195, 205 (2d Cir. 2005)). Once the moving party has
discharged its burden, the opposing party must set out specific facts showing a
genuine issue of material fact for trial. Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 266 (2d Cir.
2009). “A party may not rely on mere speculation or conjecture as to the true
nature of the facts to overcome a motion for summary judgment,” as “mere
conclusory allegations or denials cannot by themselves create a genuine issue of
material fact where none would otherwise exist.” Hicks v. Baines, 593 F.3d 159,
166 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks, citations, and alterations omitted).
“In considering a motion for summary judgment, if our analysis reveals that
there are no genuine issues of material fact, but that the law is on the side of the
non-moving party, we may grant summary judgment in favor of the non-moving
party even though it has made no formal cross-motion.” Orix Credit Alliance, Inc. v.
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Horten, 965 F. Supp. 481, 484 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) (citing Int’l Union of Bricklayers v.
Gallante, 912 F. Supp. 695, 700 (S.D.N.Y. 1996); see also Coach Leatherware Co. v.
AnnTaylor, Inc., 933 F.2d 162, 167 (2d Cir. 1991) (“[I]t is most desirable that the
court cut through mere outworn procedural niceties and make the same decision as
would have been made had defendant made a cross-motion for summary judgment.”
(citing Local 33, Int’l Hod Carriers v. Mason Tenders Dist. Council, 291 F.2d 496,
505 (2d Cir. 1961))). “Summary judgment may be granted to the non-moving party
in such circumstances so long as the moving party has had an adequate opportunity
to come forward with all of its evidence.” Orix Credit Alliance, 965 F. Supp. at 484.
(citing Cavallaro v. Law Office of Shapiro & Kreisman, 933 F. Supp. 1148, 1152
B. The Copyright Act
“From its beginning, the law of copyright has developed in response to
significant changes in technology.” Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City
Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417, 430 (1984). Copyright protections “subsists . . . in
original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” 17 U.S.C.
§ 102(a). The Copyright Act of 1976, enacted in response to changing technology,
gives a copyright owner several “exclusive rights,” including the exclusive right to
“display the copyrighted work publicly.” 17 U.S.C. § 106(5). To display a work,
under the Act, is to “show a copy of it, either directly or by means of a film, slide,
television image, or any other device or process.” 17 U.S.C. § 101 (emphasis added).
The Act’s Transmit Clause defines that exclusive right as including the right to
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“transmit or otherwise communicate . . . a display of the work . . . to the public, by
means of any device or process.” Id. It further defines “device or process” as “one
now known or later developed.” Id.
A review of the legislative history reveals that the drafters of the 1976
Amendments intended copyright protection to broadly encompass new, and not yet
understood, technologies. Indeed, on the first page of the House Report, the
drafters proclaimed that the Amendments were necessary in part because
“technical advances have generated new industries and new methods for the
reproduction and dissemination of copyrighted works;” furthermore, Congress did
“not intend to freeze the scope of copyrightable subject matter at the present stage
of communications technology.” H.R. Rep. 94-1476, 47, 51 (1976).
Specifically, in considering the display right, Congress cast a very wide net,
intending to include “[e]ach and every method by which the images . . . comprising
a . . . display are picked up and conveyed,” assuming that they reach the public. Id.
at 64 (emphasis added). It further noted that “‘display’ would include the projection
of an image on a screen or other surface by any method, the transmission of an
image by electronic or other means, and the showing of an image on a cathode ray
tube, or similar viewing apparatus connected with any sort of information storage
and retrieval system.” Id. (emphasis added). Indeed, an infringement of the
display right could occur “if the image were transmitted by any method (by closed or
open circuit television, for example, or by a computer system) from one place to
members of the public elsewhere.” Id. at 80 (emphasis added).
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The Register of Copyrights testified during hearings that preceded the
passage of the Act: “[T]he definition [of the display right] is intended to cover every
transmission, retransmission, or other communication of [the image],” beyond the
originating source that might store the image, but including “any other transmitter
who picks up his signals and passes them on.” H. Comm. On the Judiciary, 89th
Cong., Copyright Law Revision Part 6: Supplementary Report of the Register of
Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law: 1965 Revision Bill,
at 25 (Comm. Print. 1965). He highlighted the importance of the display right in
light of changing technology, specifically warning that “information storage and
retrieval devices . . . when linked together by communication satellites or other
means . . . could eventually provide libraries and individuals throughout the world
with access to a single copy of a work by transmission of electronic images” and
therefore that “a basic right of public exhibition should be expressly recognized in
the statute.” Id. at 20 (emphasis added).
C. American Broadcasting Cos., Inc. v. Aereo, Inc.
The Supreme Court most recently considered the intersection of novel
technologies and the Copyright Act in the Aereo decision, rendered in 2014.
American Broadcasting Cos., Inc. v. Aereo, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2498 (2014). The issue in
Aereo was the performance right; the Court was deciding whether Aereo “infringed
this exclusive right by selling its subscribers a technologically complex service that
allows them to watch television programs over the Internet at about the same time
as the programs are broadcast over the air.” Id. at 2503. Aereo charged a monthly
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fee to allow subscribers to watch broadcast television programming over the
internet; it maintained a vast number of servers and antennas in a central
warehouse. When a user wanted to watch a program, he would visit Aereo’s
website and select a show; in turn, Aereo’s servers would select an antenna, tune it
to the on-air broadcast, and transmit it via the internet to the subscriber. Aereo
argued that since the user chose the programs and Aereo’s technology merely
responded to the user’s choice, it was the user and not Aereo who was in fact
“transmitting” the performance.
The Court rejected this analysis, comparing Aereo to the cable companies
that parts of the 1976 Amendments were intended to reach. When comparing cable
technology (where the signals “lurked behind the screen”) to Aereo’s technology
(controlled by a click on a website), the Court stated: “[T]his difference means
nothing to the subscriber. It means nothing to the broadcaster. We do not see how
this single difference, invisible to subscriber and broadcaster alike, could transform
a system that is for all practical purposes a traditional cable system into ‘a copy
shop that provides its patrons with a library card.’” Id. at 2507.
Even the dissent, which would have found no liability based on the lack of
Aereo’s volition in choosing which programming to make available, stated that
where the alleged infringer plays no role in selecting the content, it cannot be held
directly liable when a customer makes an infringing copy: “Aereo does not ‘perform’
for the sole and simple reason that it does not make the choice of content.” Id. at
2514 (Scalia, J., dissenting).
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D. The “Server Test”
Defendants urge this Court to define the scope of the display right in terms of
what they refer to as the “Server Test.” According to defendants, it is “well settled”
law and the facts of this case call for its application. As set forth below, the Court
does not view the Server Test as the correct application of the law with regard to
the facts here. Nevertheless, it is useful to briefly chronicle the body of law that has
developed in that area and explain why it is inapplicable.
In Perfect 10, Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 508 F.3d 1146 (9th Cir. 2007)
(“Perfect 10 II”), the Ninth Circuit considered a claim of direct infringement of the
display right against Google based upon Google Image Search. The district court
addressed two different questions: 1) did the thumbnail images that automatically
pop up when a user types in a search term constitute direct infringements of the
display right; and 2) did the full size images that appeared on the screen after a
user clicked on a thumbnail constitute direct infringements of the same display
right. In answer, the court made a sharp distinction between the two based upon
where the images were hosted. Perfect 10 v. Google, Inc., 416 F. Supp. 2d 828, 839
(C.D. Cal. 2006) (“Perfect 10 I”). First, it found the thumbnails to be infringing,
based on the fact that they were stored on Google’s server. Id. at 844. Conversely,
it held that the full size images, which were stored on third-party servers and
accessed by “in-line linking”—which works, like embedding, based upon the HTML
code instructions—were not infringements. Id. In so doing, the court rejected the
plaintiff’s proposed Incorporation Test, which would define display as the “act of
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incorporating content into a webpage that is then pulled up by the browser.” Id. at
839. It adopted instead the Server Test, where whether a website publisher is
directly liable for infringement turns entirely on whether the image is hosted on the
publisher’s own server, or is embedded or linked from a third-party server.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed. 2 In the Ninth Circuit, therefore, at
least as regards a search engine, the “Server Test” is settled law.
Defendants here argue that Perfect 10 is part of an “unbroken line of
authority” on which this Court should rely in determining broadly whether a
copyright owner’s display right has been violated. Outside of the Ninth Circuit,
however, the Server Test has not been widely adopted. Even a quick survey reveals
that the case law in this area is somewhat scattered. Of the other Circuits, only the
Seventh Circuit has weighed in thus far—in Flava Works, Inc. v. Gunter, 689 F.3d
754 (7th Cir. 2012), the question before the court was whether the defendant was a
contributory infringer. Defendant in that case, a “social bookmarker,” whose service
involved enabling individuals who share interests to point each other towards
online materials (in this case, videos) that cater towards that taste, through
embedding the code for the video onto its website. The videos remained hosted on
the original servers. As with Perfect 10, upon arriving on defendant’s website,
thumbnails would appear; after clicking on one, the user would retrieve content
from plaintiff’s website. The Flava Court found that defendants were not
contributory infringers; the question of direct infringement was never reached. The
found, however, that “Google is likely to succeed in proving its fair use defense” as to the
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lower court, however, had opined that “[t]o the extent that Perfect 10 can be read to
stand for the proposition that inline linking can never cause a display of images or
videos that would give rise to a claim of direct copyright infringement, we
respectfully disagree. In our view, a website’s servers need not actually store a copy
of the work in order to ‘display’ it.” Flava Works, Inc. v. Gunter, 2011 WL 3876910,
at *4 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 1, 2011), rev’d on other grounds, 689 F.3d 754 (7th Cir. 2012)
Four courts in this District have discussed the Server Test and Perfect 10’s
holding; none adopted the Server Test for the display right. First, in Live Face on
Web, LLC v. Biblio Holdings LLC, 2016 WL 4766344 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 12, 2016), the
issue before the court was the distribution right, not the display right. Defendant
argued that a distribution had not occurred, since the alleged infringing content
was hosted on a third-party server, and not its own. The court noted that defendant
cited no legal authority for this proposition, but stated that “such authority may
exist,” citing Perfect 10. Id. at *4. The court did not adopt the Server Test; rather,
it held that additional discovery was necessary as the issue had “hardly” been
briefed. Id. at *5. Second, in MyPlayCity, Inc., v. Conduit Ltd., 2012 WL 1107648
(S.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2012), the distribution right was again at issue. In that case,
when the user clicked a “play now” button on the defendant’s customized tool bar, it
would be able to play games hosted on the plaintiff’s servers. The court cited
Perfect 10 and then found that, due to the fact that plaintiff’s servers “‘actually
disseminated’ the copies of [plaintiff’s] copyrighted games, [defendant] cannot be
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held liable for infringing on [plaintiff’s] distribution rights.” Id. at *14. Third, in
Pearson Education, Inc. v. Ishayev, 963 F. Supp. 2d 239 (S.D.N.Y. 2013), the court
held that standard text hyperlinks (not including images) that users click in order
to view and visit other sites were not a use of infringing content, relying in part on
Perfect 10; the exclusive right at issue here, too, was the distribution right.
Only the fourth case in this District, Capitol Records, LLC v. ReDigi Inc., 934
F. Supp. 2d 640 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) squarely dealt with the § 106(5) display right.
There, however, the court did no more than offer a simple factual statement, “The
Ninth Circuit has held that the display of a photographic image on a computer may
implicate the display right, though infringement hinges, in part, on where the
image was hosted.” Id. at 652 (emphasis added). It then proceeded to deny
summary judgment based on material disputes as to the content of the allegedly
infringing issues. Id.
Additionally, in a trademark decision rendered in this District prior to
Perfect 10, when considering whether defendant Tunes was liable for trademark
infringement to the Hard Rock Café for “framing” the Hard Rock logo on their
website, the court held that it was. Hard Rock Café Int’l v. Morton, 1999 WL
717995 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 9, 1999). After considering both the fact that “it [was] not
clear to the computer user that she or he has left the [plaintiff’s] web site” and the
fact that there was a “seamless presentation” on the website, the court found that
“the only possible conclusion is that the Hard Rock Hotel Mark is used or exploited
to advertise and sell CDS.” Id. at *25.
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Only a handful of other district courts have considered the issue. 3 In Grady
v. Iacullo, 2016 WL 1559134 (D. Colo. Apr. 18, 2016), the court considered the
exclusive reproduction and distribution rights, and, relying on Perfect 10, reopened
discovery in order to allow plaintiff an opportunity to show that defendant stored
the allegedly infringing images on his own computer. 4 In another recent district
court case, plaintiff survived the motion to dismiss stage in a distribution case,
based on the theory that each time a user used defendant’s website, it “cause[d] a
copy of [plaintiff’s] software to be distributed to the website visitor’s computer in
cache, memory, or hard drive” and that the “[defendant’s] website distributed copies
of the code to each of the website’s visitors.” Live Face on Web, LLC v. Smart Move
Search, Inc., 2017 WL 1064664 (D.N.J. Mar. 21, 2017), at *2.
Finally, in The Leader’s Institute, LLC v. Jackson, 2017 WL 5629514 (N.D.
Tex. Nov. 22, 2017), at issue on summary judgment was, inter alia, whether
plaintiffs infringed defendant’s exclusive display rights by “framing” defendant’s
websites. The court rejected Perfect 10, holding that by “framing the defendant’s
copyrighted works, the plaintiffs impermissibly displayed the works to the public.”
Id. at *10. It distinguished Perfect 10 on its facts, noting that, “[U]nlike Google,
[plaintiffs’ website] did not merely provide a link by which users could access
[defendant’s] content but instead displayed [defendant’s] content as if it were its
own.” Id. at *11. It further stated: “[T]o the extent Perfect 10 makes actual
3 The Court does not here review district court cases from the Ninth Circuit, as they are
appropriately controlled by Perfect 10’s analysis.
4 It subsequently granted summary judgment to the plaintiff upon a showing that the defendant had,
in fact, downloaded the images onto his computer.
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possession of a copy a necessary condition to violating a copyright owner’s exclusive
right to display the copyrighted works, the Court respectfully disagrees with the
Ninth Circuit. . . . The text of the Copyright Act does not make actual possession of
a work a prerequisite for infringement.” Id.
In sum, this Court is aware of only three decisions outside of the Ninth
Circuit considering the display right in light of Perfect 10; one from the Seventh
Circuit which adopted the Server Test for contributory liability, one from the
Southern District which stated as a factual matter only that Perfect 10 existed, and
one from the Northern District of Texas rejecting Perfect 10.
Defendants’ argument is simple—they have framed the issue as one in which
the physical location and/or possession of an allegedly infringing image determines
liability under the § 106(5) exclusive display right. Defendants argue that—despite
the seamless presentation of the Brady Photo on their webpages—they simply
provided “instructions” for the user to navigate to a third-party server on which the
photo resided. According to defendants, merely providing instructions does not
constitute a “display” by the defendants as a matter of law. They maintain that
Perfect 10’s Server Test is settled law that should determine the outcome of this
Plaintiff maintains both 1) that to apply the Server Test leads to results
incongruous with the purposes and text of the Copyright Act; and 2) even if the
Server Test is rightfully applied in a case such as Perfect 10, or another case in
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which the user takes a volitional action of his own to display an image, it is
inappropriate in cases such as those here, where the user takes no action to
“display” the image. He and his amici 5 caution that to adopt the Server Test
broadly would have a “devastating” economic impact on photography and visual
artwork licensing industries, noting that it would “eliminate” the incentives for
websites to pay licensing fees, and thus “deprive content creators of the resources
necessary to invest in further creation.” (ECF No. 145-1 at 4.)
The Court agrees with plaintiff. The plain language of the Copyright Act, the
legislative history undergirding its enactment, and subsequent Supreme Court
jurisprudence provide no basis for a rule that allows the physical location or
possession of an image to determine who may or may not have “displayed” a work
within the meaning of the Copyright Act. Moreover, the Court agrees that there are
critical factual distinctions between Perfect 10 and this case such that, even if the
Second Circuit were to find the Server Test consistent with the Copyright Act, it
would be inapplicable here.
A. The Copyright Act
Nowhere does the Copyright Act suggest that possession of an image is
necessary in order to display it. Indeed, the purpose and language of the Act
support the opposite view. The definitions in § 101 are illuminating. First, to
display a work publicly means to “to transmit . . . a . . . display of the work . . . by
Getty Images, the American Society of Media Photographers, Digital Media Licensing Association,
National Press Photographers Association, and North American Nature Photography Association
submitted an amicus brief supporting plaintiff. (ECF No. 145-1.)
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means of any device or process.” 17 USC § 101. To transmit a display is to
“communicate it by any device or process whereby images or sounds are received
beyond the place from which they are sent.” Id. (emphasis added). Devices and
processes are further defined to mean ones “now known or later developed.” Id.
This is plainly drafted with the intent to sweep broadly.
Here, defendants’ websites actively took steps to “display” the image. A
review of just a few of the declarations proffered by defendants illustrates the point.
For defendant Heavy.com:
[I]n order to embed the SneakerReporter Tweet, Heavy.com navigated
to Twitter and copied the SneakerReporter Tweet’s URL. Heavy.com
then used out of the box content management functionality provided by
WordPress to embed the SneakerReporter Tweet within the Heavy.com
(ECF No. 130, Nobel Decl. ¶ 5.).
Defendant Boston Herald “pasted a code line into its blog/article that
contains Twitter HTML instructions.” (ECF No. 137, Emond Decl. ¶ 16.)
Defendant The Big Lead submitted a declaration in which the managing
editor stated, “My entering the URL for the RealBobManningTweet into the field for
embedded content in the CMS [content management system] caused this URL to be
inserted into embedding code that became part of the HTML code for the Big Lead
Article.” (ECF No. 127, Lisk Decl. ¶ 7.)
Defendant Gannett submitted a declaration in which the Vice President
[I]f I wanted that web page to display a photo that a third party user
had posted to a site like Twitter, I could do so without me ever having
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to make a copy of the photo. I would simply include in my HTML code
some additional coding containing a link to the URL of the Twitter page
where the photo appeared.
(ECF No. 126, Hiland Decl. ¶ 6) (emphasis added).
It is clear, therefore, that each and every defendant itself took active steps to
put a process in place that resulted in a transmission of the photos so that they
could be visibly shown. Most directly this was accomplished by the act of including
the code in the overall design of their webpage; that is, embedding. Properly
understood, the steps necessary to embed a Tweet are accomplished by the
defendant website; these steps constitute a process. The plain language of the
Copyright Act calls for no more.
Indeed, and as discussed above, the Copyright Act’s authors intended to
include “each and every method by which images . . . comprising a . . . display are
picked up and conveyed;” moreover they went as far as to note that an infringement
of the display right could occur “if the image were transmitted by any method (. . .
for example, by a computer system) from one place to members of the public
elsewhere.” H.R. Rep. 94-1476, 64, 70 (1976). Persuasive as well is the warning of
the Register of Copyrights that a “basic right of public exhibition” was necessary to
the 1976 Amendments precisely because “information storage and retrieval devices .
. . when linked together by communication satellites or other means . . . could
eventually provide libraries and individuals throughout the world with access to a
single copy or a work by transmission of electronic images.” H. Comm. On the
Judiciary, 89th Cong., Copyright Law Revision Part 6: Supplementary Report of the
Case 1:17-cv-03144-KBF Document 169 Filed 02/15/18 Page 20 of 25
Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law: 1965
Revision Bill, at 25 (Comm. Print. 1965).
In sum, this Court sees nothing in either the text or purpose of the Copyright
Act suggesting that physical possession of an image is a necessary element to its
display for purposes of the Act.
B. Aereo’s Impact
Moreover, though the Supreme Court has only weighed in obliquely on the
issue, its language in Aereo is instructive. At heart, the Court’s holding eschewed
the notion that Aereo should be absolved of liability based upon purely technical
distinctions—in the end, Aereo was held to have transmitted the performances,
despite its argument that it was the user clicking a button, and not any volitional
act of Aereo itself, that did the performing. The language the Court used there to
describe invisible technological details applies equally well here: “This difference
means nothing to the subscriber. It means nothing to the broadcaster. We do not
see how this single difference, invisible to subscriber and broadcaster alike, could
transform a system that is for all practical purposes a traditional cable system into
a ‘copy shop that provides patrons with a library card.’” Aereo, 134 S. Ct. at 2507.
Of course, in Aereo there was no argument about the physical location of the
antennae, which were without dispute located in Aereo’s warehouses; similarly
there was no dispute that Aereo’s servers saved data from the on-air broadcasts
onto its own hard drives. On the other hand, Aereo was arguably a more passive
participant in transmitting the performance right than is a user in the case here—
Case 1:17-cv-03144-KBF Document 169 Filed 02/15/18 Page 21 of 25
who has no choice in what is displayed to him when he navigates to one of
defendant’s webpages. Furthermore, the principles that undergird the Aereo
decision—chief among them that mere technical distinctions invisible to the user
should not be the lynchpin on which copyright liability lies—apply with equal vigor
As noted above, even the dissent implies that were Aereo to engage in any
sort of curatorial process as to content, that liability might lie: “In sum, Aereo does
not perform for the sole and simple reason that it does not make the choice of
content.” Id. at 2514 (Scalia, J., dissenting). This adds credence to the notion that
where, as here, defendants are choosing the content which will be displayed, that
they would indeed be displaying.
In sum, this Court reads Aereo, while not directly on point, as strongly
supporting plaintiff’s argument that liability should not hinge on invisible, technical
processes imperceptible to the viewer.
C. Perfect 10
The Court declines defendants’ invitation to apply Perfect 10’s Server Test for
two reasons. First, this Court is skeptical that Perfect 10 correctly interprets the
display right of the Copyright Act. As stated above, this Court finds no indication in
the text or legislative history of the Act that possessing a copy of an infringing
image is a prerequisite to displaying it. The Ninth Circuit’s analysis hinged,
however, on making a “copy” of the image to be displayed—which copy would be
stored on the server. It stated that its holding did not “erroneously collapse the
Case 1:17-cv-03144-KBF Document 169 Filed 02/15/18 Page 22 of 25
display right in section 106(5) into the reproduction right in 106(1).” Perfect 10 II,
508 F.3d at 1161. But indeed, that appears to be exactly what was done.
The Copyright Act, however, provides several clues that this is not what was
intended. In several distinct parts of the Act, it contemplates infringers who would
not be in possession of copies—for example in Section 110(5)(A) which exempts
“small commercial establishments whose proprietors merely bring onto their
premises standard radio or television equipment and turn it on for their customer’s
enjoyment” from liability. H.R. Rep. No. 94-1476 at 87 (1976). That these
establishments require an exemption, despite the fact that to turn on the radio or
television is not to make or store a copy, is strong evidence that a copy need not be
made in order to display an image.
Second, even if it correctly interprets the Act, to the degree that defendants
interpret Perfect 10 as standing for a broadly-construed Server Test, focusing on the
physical location of allegedly infringing images, this Court disagrees. Rather,
Perfect 10 was heavily informed by two factors—the fact that the defendant
operated a search engine, and the fact that the user made an active choice to click
on an image before it was displayed—that suggest that such a broad reading is
neither appropriate nor desirable.
In Perfect 10, the district court’s Opinion, while not strictly cabining its
adoption of the Server Test to a search engine like Google, nevertheless relied
heavily on that fact in its analysis. It stated, for example, that adopting the Server
Test “will merely preclude search engines from being held directly liable for in-line
Case 1:17-cv-03144-KBF Document 169 Filed 02/15/18 Page 23 of 25
linking and or framing infringing contents stored on third-party websites.” Perfect
10 I, 416 F. Supp. 2d at 844 (emphasis added). It went on: “Merely to index the web
so that users can more readily find the information they seek should not constitute
direct infringement . . . .” Id. (emphasis added). On appeal, the Ninth Circuit
began its statement of the case by saying, “we consider a copyright owner’s efforts to
stop an Internet search engine from facilitating access to infringing images.”
Perfect 10 II, 508 F.3d at 1154.
In addition, the role of the user was paramount in the Perfect 10 case—the
district court found that users who view the full-size images “after clicking on one of
the thumbnails” are “engaged in a direct connection with third-party websites,
which are themselves responsible for transferring content.” Perfect 10 I, 416 F.
Supp. 2d at 843.
In this Court’s view, these distinctions are critical. In Perfect 10, Google’s
search engine provided a service whereby the user navigated from webpage to
webpage, with Google’s assistance. This is manifestly not the same as opening up a
favorite blog or website to find a full color image awaiting the user, whether he or
she asked for it, looked for it, clicked on it, or not. Both the nature of Google Search
Engine, as compared to the defendant websites, and the volitional act taken by
users of the services, provide a sharp contrast to the facts at hand.
In sum, the Court here does not apply the Server Test. It is neither
appropriate to the specific facts of this case, nor, this Court believes, adequately
Case 1:17-cv-03144-KBF Document 169 Filed 02/15/18 Page 24 of 25
grounded in the text of the Copyright Act. It therefore does not and should not
control the outcome here.
Defendants warn that to find for plaintiff here would “cause a tremendous
chilling effect on the core functionality of the web.” (ECF No. 121, Defs.’ Mem. of
Law in Supp. at 35) (quoting Perfect 10 I, 426 F. Supp. 2d at 840). Their amici 6
warn that not adopting the Server Test here would “radically change linking
practices, and thereby transform the Internet as we know it.”
The Court does not view the results of its decision as having such dire
consequences. Certainly, given a number as of yet unresolved strong defenses to
liability separate from this issue, numerous viable claims should not follow.
In this case, there are genuine questions about whether plaintiff effectively
released his image into the public domain when he posted it to his Snapchat
account. Indeed, in many cases there are likely to be factual questions as to
licensing and authorization. There is also a very serious and strong fair use
defense, a defense under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and limitations on
damages from innocent infringement.
6 The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit foundation dedicated to free expression, and
Public Knowledge, a not-for-profit public interest advocacy and research organization, submitted an
amicus brief at ECF No. 143-1. (Amicus Brief of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public
Knowledge in Support of Defendants’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.)
Case 1:17-cv-03144-KBF Document 169 Filed 02/15/18 Page 25 of 25
In sum, for all the reasons discussed above, the Court DENIES defendants’
motion for partial summary judgment and GRANTS partial summary judgment to
For the reasons stated above, defendants’ motion for partial Summary
Judgment is DENIED. The Court GRANTS partial Summary Judgment to the
plaintiff. The Clerk of Court is directed to terminate the motion at ECF No. 119.
New York, New York
February 15, 2018
KATHERINE B. FORREST
United States District Judge
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