2008 Cyberlaw Year-in-Review

By Eric Goldman

It’s a sign of my schedule that I’m just now getting to this, and this post will be more pithy than I initially conceived. This post recaps some of the Cyberlaw highlights from last year. Frankly, the two biggest stories of 2008 were the financial markets meltdown and the ascension of President Obama, neither of which have a lot of Cyberlaw angles. In light of those big developments, Cyberlaw in 2008 was comparatively quiet. However, there is still plenty of interesting developments to revisit.

Broad Themes

A few broad themes emerged last year:

* Ludicrous trademark claims. 2008 hardly had a monopoly on dumb trademark claims; those are perennial. But 2008 certainly saw some asinine entries, including putative Cyberlawyer Eric Menhart’s claim to own a trademark in the term “Cyberlaw,” Jones Day’s efforts to claim that a web page referencing its name as the employer of some homebuyers violated its trademark rights, and putative Cyberlawyer John Dozier’s claim that if his name is used as anchor text, the link must go to his website or it violates his trademark right.

* This was a good year for expansive readings and applications of user agreements. Some examples:

- the Lori Drew prosecution, where Lori was convicted of violating an agreement that someone else clicked through.

- Jacobsen v. Katzer, where a user of copyrighted material is bound by a contract that he/she never clicked through at all.

- AV v. iParadigms, where kids were not allowed to void a user agreement despite their status as minors (and despite the fact that some of them had no meaningful choice about whether or not to consent).

- JuicyCampus enforcement action, where the New Jersey Attorney General’s office tried to treat a negative user behavioral restriction in a user agreement as an affirmative marketing representation that such user behavior would not occur on the site.

* One of the long-standing Cyberlaw memes is that websites must either be passive conduits to avoid liability or active editors to manage their liability, but if a website chooses the latter, the website is liable for any editorial mistakes. That is, if the website edits its site but misses something, it’s fully liable for what it missed. This simply isn’t true under 47 USC 230, which allows websites to choose to be passive, active or anything in between without varying liability. In the IP context, this passive v. active meme has had more traction, but 2008 saw two solid cases suggesting that if a website tries to police its premises and fails, courts will be sympathetic and excuse any omissions. Example #1: Tiffany v. eBay, where the court gave eBay extra credit for its VeRO program as a basis to excuse any counterfeit goods that slip through. Example #2: Io v. Veoh, where the court was more willing to excuse Veoh because it had undertaken extra policing efforts than was required for the 17 USC 512 safe harbor. Finally, although not an IP case, the court in Cisneros v. Yahoo also lauded search engines for their affirmative efforts to block gambling ads, which the court acknowledged was a hard challenge.

* Despite some adverse rulings early in the year, punctuated by the Ninth Circuit’s en banc ruling in Roommates.com, the 47 USC 230 immunization is still extremely robust. We saw a number of expansive and pro-defense rulings per 230 throughout the year, including Craigslist, Doe v. MySpace, Cisneros v. Yahoo and Goddard v. Google. Perhaps more importantly, in the three 230 cases I’ve seen since Roommates.com that cited to the opinion, all three cited the opinion in ruling for the defense.

* Battles over keyword advertising are hardly over, even though Utah officially backed off its attempt to ban them. The ABA IP Section tried to get into the act, and American Airlines sued Google, settled, and then sued Yahoo.

Top 11 Cyberlaw Developments of 2008

#11: Utah Trademark Protection Act repealed. The Utah Trademark Protection Act had the potential to throw the entire keyword advertising business into turmoil. Instead, now that it’s repealed, it just remains as a dramatic reminder of the Utah legislature’s incompetence regarding Internet legislation.

# 9 and 10: Fair Housing Council v. Roommates.com and Goddard v. Google. The Roommates.com en banc opinion makes the list based mostly on its potential consequences, not its actual effect. It remains one of the most significant pro-plaintiff incursions into the solidly defense-favorable interpretations of 47 USC 230, but it’s so riddled with contradictory and ambiguous language that no one really knows what to do with it. I think Judge Fogel’s reading of the case in Goddard v. Google has the potential to become the defining interpretation of the case, and his solidly defense-favorable reading of the precedent in excusing Google for ads placed by its advertisers may only reinforce how little Roommates.com changed the law.

#8: AV v. iParadigms. This case was a terrific win for online fair use enthusiasts because the for-profit commercialization of a database of third party copyrighted works was still deemed fair use. The upholding of the contract against the minors forced to enter into it was also significant. Before this ruling, my assumption is that any plaintiff trying to form a class action lawsuit in the face of an adverse user agreement could always form the class on behalf of any minors who had the right to void the contract. This case seems to shut down that loophole in user agreement protection.

#7: Io v. Veoh. The 17 USC 512(c) safe harbor has been law for over a decade and has produced a couple dozen rulings, but few are cleaner and more decisive for the defense than this one. It was a textbook example of a court rejecting the many different arguments plaintiffs make to kick a defendant out of the safe harbor, and as mentioned before, it was a great validation for Veoh’s decision to do more than 512 required.

#6: Jacobsen v. Katzer. From a doctrinal standpoint, this case raises really difficult questions about how a copyright consumer can be bound to terms that he/she never “assented” to. Even so, this case had huge implications because it effectively validated that open source licenses can be binding on licensees, giving much more legal credibility to the entire multi-billion open source software industry. However, an odd footnote: on remand, the district court denied an injunction for the plaintiff, raising more issues about what exactly the plaintiff won at the Federal Circuit.

#5: Tiffany v. eBay. A fantastic validation of eBay’s practices against a very serious and sympathetic challenger who had plenty of evidence that counterfeit goods were being sold on eBay’s site. The case also shows that courts can grow tired of IP owners simply making up their own rules about how online sites should protect them and then suing the sites for breaching these artificial rules.

#4: Mazur v. eBay. A more scary case to 47 USC 230 defense enthusiasts than the Roommates.com opinion. The court says that eBay isn’t protected by 230 for some of the marketing representations it makes, even if those representations are rendered untrue by third parties. While this makes a lot of doctrinal sense, it is also a green light for plaintiffs to mine a website’s marketing representations as a way to bypass the otherwise-fatal consequences of 230 on a lawsuit triggered by user behavior or content.

#3: Google Book Search settlement. This makes the list for two independent reasons. First, many folks were hoping the case would establish solid precedent on online fair use, and the settlement ended that hope. Second, the proposed Book Rights Registry has the potential to reshape a number of major industries, including the book publishing business, the book retailing industry and the library industry.

#2: the Lori Drew prosecution. I think this may have been the most polarizing Cyberlaw development of 2008, exposing deep divides in people’s appetite for punishing bad conduct online. It’s hard to assess the overall implications of her conviction because no one rallied to praise Lori Drew’s choices, and her case is still a ways from a final legal outcome. However, the possible implications of the case were so complex that it took a special three part series for me to explore its nuances (1, 2, 3).

#1: Cartoon Network v. CSC (the “Cablevision” case). Boy, the more I think about this case, the more important it becomes. The case upends our assumption that if we see it online, it’s fixed, creating a new class of unfixed electronic works. Also, the court treats the users, not the service, as making the requisite copies, which reinforces the possibility that online providers can be just “dumb technology providers” for copyright law purposes and reinvigorates the possible defense that a service provider’s copying is just done as a proxy for its users. However, the Supreme Court’s ambiguous response to the cert petition–not yes, not no, but a request to the Solicitor General for comments–leaves this decision in a precarious position.

Other Developments of Special Note

47 USC 230

* Doe v. MySpace. The Fifth Circuit soundly rejects the argument that MySpace had an obligation to police its “premises.”

* Craigslist. Judge Easterbrook’s language in Doe v. GTE had given plaintiffs some hope that the Seventh Circuit would provide a friendly venue to plaintiffs trying to overcome 47 USC 230. Judge Easterbrook may still love his language (which he quoted extensively in the Craigslist ruling), but his practical and no-nonsense ruling for the defense squelches the hope that the Seventh Circuit will become a plaintiff’s haven.

* New Jersey’s enforcement action against JuicyCampus. State AG offices HATE 47 USC 230.

Affiliate Liability

* Impulse Media. A jury thumped the FTC’s overly expansive views of affiliate liability for spam.

* NY v. Direct Revenue. A state judge emphatically rejected the NY AG’s office’s expansive views of affiliate liability for adware.

Trademarks/Domain Names

* American Airlines’ lawsuits against Google and Yahoo. No one I know fully understands why American Airlines sued Google for selling its trademarks for keyword ads. No one I know understands what concessions Google gave to American Airlines to settle the case. And no one I know understands why American Airlines decided to sue Yahoo after procuring the Google settlement. It’s all a big mystery.

* NSI’s grabbing of domain names in response to WHOIS queries. Is there any better example of ICANN’s failings to police domain name retailers than to have one retailer selling a scarce good grabbing the good exclusively (blocking attempted sales by all other retailers) when a customer merely inquires about it?

* Kentucky’s attempted seizure of 141 gambling-related domain names. As I wrote before, “Is a domain name property? Yes. See the Sex.com case. Can a plaintiff seize a domain name pursuant to a favorable judgment? Yes. Is it appropriate for Kentucky to seize domain names for gambling websites available in Kentucky? Of course not, because this would effectuate an extraterritorial reach by curtailing non-Kentucky residents from making possibly legal uses of the domain name.”

* Eric Menhart, a lawyer who claims to practice Cyberlaw, doesn’t know that Cyberlaw is a generic term.

* New gTLDs. Maybe I should reserve this development for 2009…if it happens.

Others

* McCain complains about 512(c)(3) notices taking down his YouTube videos. Surprise! 512(c)(3) notices are unforgiving. Sen. McCain, now that you’ve had a first-hand taste of their power, maybe you’d like to revisit the statute to see if it’s producing the right incentives?

* FCC’s bust of Comcast. The pro-regulatory forces were queued up to pounce on any examples where an IAP violated Net Neutrality principles, and Comcast’s chicanery in forging reset packets was impossible for anyone to defend.

* NebuAd’s flameout. Behavioral ad targeting is in our future unless regulators stop it. NebuAd won’t be the winning provider of targeting services, but legislators will keep trying to regulate it further out of existence nonetheless.