Top Internet Law Developments of 2011

By Eric Goldman

As usual, I’m running late with my year-end recap. This post begins with my countdown of the top 5 Internet Law developments of 2011, then it lists other interesting developments and cases. It concludes with some of the most linked posts and then my editor’s choice of some posts in 2011 that might have been a little overlooked. As usual, thanks for reading the blog in 2011!

Countdown: My Top 5 List of Developments in 2011

#5: Righthaven Implodes. Since the beginning, I’ve been skeptical of Righthaven’s business model. Seriously, who else thinks it’s a good idea to sue small-time mom-and-pop bloggers and non-profits on a one-by-one basis? However, even I had no idea that Righthaven would accelerate their own demise by routinely making basic litigation errors. A sketchy business model + a litigation shop that isn’t very good at litigation = one dead start-up. It’s always fun (in a bloodsporty way) to watch hubristic bullies get their just desserts, but watching the Randazza firm school the Righthaven litigators in Litigation 101 has been amazing. THAT’S how you litigate.

Righthaven lost often in 2011 (see my August reset). They lost fair use rulings (e.g., CIO, Choudry). They lost on standing grounds (e.g., Democratic Underground, Wolf). They were hit with sanctions. They were hit with hundreds of thousands of dollars of attorney fee shifts (e.g., Leon, Wolf, DiBiase). They even lost their domain name in an auction–a delicious irony given that Righthaven’s complaints improperly demanded its defendants’ domain names on the theory that it might need the domain name to satisfy a judgment against the defendant, when in fact it was Righthaven’s domain name that was used to help satisfy a judgment against it!

Righthaven ended 2011 on death’s door, but the trend of newspapers trolling for copyright litigation isn’t going away. I’ll be watching NewsRight closely in 2012.

#4: Medical Justice Gives Up. Speaking of hubristic bullies… You recall Medical Justice, the organization that helped doctors and other medical service providers take copyright assignments from patients in their as-yet-unwritten reviews so that the doctors could expeditiously remove unwanted reviews by sending 512(c)(3) takedown notices to review sites. It’s an interesting legal hack, but it has some bad side-effects, including the fact that patients hated it, the copyright assignments almost certainly were void (for public policy reasons and others), doctors were hurting themselves by discouraging patient reviews (patients prefer to choose doctors when there’s a critical mass of patient reviews), and (as our research uncovered) most consumer review sites ignored the doctors’ 512(c)(3) takedown notices. Obviously, with those defects, Medical Justice wasn’t exactly adding a ton of value to its clients. Medical Justice finally gave up, but too late to prevent a lawsuit against one of its clients and a complaint to the FTC. Chances are Medical Justice will be living with a long-term hangover from this entrepreneurial foray.

Seeing Medical Justice stop peddling anti-patient review tools was slightly satisfying, but that result was always a fait accompli. The reason Medical Justice’s change of heart matters is that shady or clueless vendors keep developing new ways to suppress unwanted consumer reviews, and I hope Medical Justice’s experiences will discourage other vendors from trying the copyright hack. I talk about these dynamics more in my paper on regulating reputational information.

#3: gTLD Expansion. It remains unclear exactly what ICANN’s rollout of unlimited top level domains will do. Due to the expansion of new namespaces, brand owners face a long list of complicated–and potentially expensive–choices to make. Unfortunately, these choices don’t really benefit society; instead, the gTLDs tax businesses while the benefits accrue to a small number of service providers (and, of course, ICANN itself). I think many businesses will reserve their name in multiple new gTLDs to prevent squatting–with the net effect that businesses will spend more money just to preserve the status quo. Meanwhile, most consumers are likely to be bewildered by the unlimited number of TLDs, which is just going to increase their tendency to rely on search engines and link directories rather than domain names to navigate to their desired destinations.

#2: Internet Consumer Privacy Lawsuits Tank. 2011 initially looked like the year of the Privacy Plaintiff. A torrent of privacy lawsuits had been filed, plaintiffs had wrested a few important and lucrative settlements, and Internet companies continue to make questionable privacy decisions that create a steady supply of potential new lawsuits.

But the path to riches didn’t materialize. Instead, 2011 emerged as the year when privacy class action lawsuits mostly failed miserably. Courts principally rejected the lawsuits on standing grounds for lack of cognizable harm, but plaintiffs failed on other related grounds, such as a lack of damages negating the prima facie case. There were some exceptions where plaintiffs made a little progress (see, e.g., Claridge v. RockYou, Anderson v. Hannaford, Fraley v. Facebook). I’m sure the privacy plaintiffs’ bar will be studying those rare successes to formulate a better battle plan–and to better prepare their cases and find strong named plaintiffs, a recurring omission that hasn’t gotten a lot better over the year. However, for now, it’s clear that the privacy plaintiffs’ bar can’t just show up in court and hold out their hands for a payday.

#1: Regulators Broke the Internet. We’ve always known that regulators could combat bad online activity by working “up the chain,” i.e., by making upstream service providers liable for the bad acts or obligated to cut off the activity. However, for the most part, we’ve shared a tacit understanding that systematically going up the chain was a “nuclear” option–it would fix the specific problem but only at significant collateral cost that, on balance, makes the option unattractive.

I think we’ll look back at 2011 as the year that tacit understanding broke down. In 2011, regulators around the world showed a seemingly insatiable demand for working up the chain. Although we in the USA like to think we’re different from other repressive regimes, the evidence suggests otherwise. Some examples of “up the chain” activity in 2011:

* Arab Spring. Repressive regimes got local Internet access providers to turn off Internet access in the country.

* Operation in Our Sites. The Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency keeps seizing domain names of suspected foreign rogue websites on an ex parte basis, making errors and breaking the law in the process. Mike Masnick blew open the story on Dajaz1.com, which ICE seized on an ex parte basis, conducted secret proceedings for a year, and then gave back the domain name with no explanation.

* Graduated Response. Copyright owners got Internet access providers to voluntarily (?) agree to restrict, and eventually terminate, their users’ accounts.

* Secondary liability against intermediaries. Rightowners keep expanding their intermediary targets, including lawsuits against ad networks and SEOs/web designers. To be fair, some of these lawsuits aren’t going very far, and expansive secondary liability theories aren’t new in 2011.

* Ex Parte Seizures. Rightsowners are asking for the moon against third party service providers in ex parte proceedings, and courts are giving it to them because the third parties aren’t there to represent their own interests. We recap this epidemic in this post.

* SOPA and PIPA. These proposed bills were the finest examples of rightsowners pursuing the nuclear option regardless of the collateral damage. The bills’ basic architecture was to attack a wide range of intermediaries for third party actions–domain name registrars, search engines, payment service providers, ad networks. By seeking to deputize the intermediaries, the bills sought to instantiate “up the chain” duties across virtually the entire Internet. Putting aside their other policy deficiencies, I think we should resist all laws predicated on that fundamental assumption of intermediary deputization. See my post on the OPEN bill for why I reject the compromise “follow the money” solution. Sadly, I stand virtually alone in my stance.

Other Interesting Developments.

Some other interesting developments this year:

* Patent Reform. The America Invents Act is the most dramatic patent reform bill in years, and it has many provisions that may affect Internet companies, including the joinder standards, the prior user defense, and the novelty/priority standards. The law doesn’t fix the overall problems with bad Internet patents or unmeritorious assertions of those patents, but it nevertheless could make some dramatic changes in what Internet companies do.

* Google and Antitrust. Google has become the incumbent in search, and all of its rivals–especially the companies Google is disintermediating–are desperately seeking to knock it off its perch. I believe Google and antitrust was the #1 topic prompting reporter phone calls to me in 2011. We are waiting to see what comes from the FTC investigation into Google’s practices, and the list of Google-haters keeps growing daily. At the same time, the anti-Google forces made surprisingly little actual progress in 2011, including suffering a conspicuous (and not even close) loss in the myTriggers case. See my paper on why I am so over the Google antitrust battles.

* DC’s Obsession with Busting Silicon Valley Companies. Sometimes, it feels like DC insiders wake up in the morning and wonder, “What Silicon Valley company do I feel like busting today?” Drive down the 101 from San Francisco to San Jose and play the “Spot the FTC/DOJ Bust” bingo game. Some of DC’s targets in 2011: Google Buzz, Twitter (finalized in 2011), Facebook, Google pharma ads, Apple and others for no-poaching restrictions, and others. Good times!

* Judges Order Litigants to Hand Over Passwords to Social Networking Sites. This year, several judges ordered litigants to turn over their Facebook passwords to their litigation opponents for discovery purposes. See, e.g., Zimmerman v. Weis (which I added to my Internet Law reader this year). In 10 years, we’ll look back at this mini-trend and shake our heads at the judicial cluelessness. Social networking sites contain a mix of public and private information, and letting a litigation opponent root around the account is just as objectionable as making a litigant hand over the keys to his/her house so the opponent can rummage around.

Other Key Court Rulings in 2011

Some other interesting court decisions this year:

* Author’s Guild v. Google. The court rejected the Google Book Search settlement agreement for good reasons, but it sent the parties back to square 1. Why the parties haven’t been able to broker a legislative compromise is beyond me.

* Barclays v. theflyonthewall. The Second Circuit took a big bite out of the hot news doctrine. Unfortunately, the Second Circuit didn’t kill the hot news doctrine outright, but the opinion leaves open very little room for hot news plaintiffs.

* Network Automation v. Advanced System Concepts. The most important keyword advertising ruling to come out in several years. While the ruling itself was a mixed bag for the litigants, the opinion tore down a number of crusty plaintiff-favorable legal doctrines that had cluttered up trademark jurisprudence for years–including virtually mooting the initial interest confusion doctrine and killing the “Internet trinity” bypass to the standard multi-factor likelihood of consumer confusion test. I’ve noticed that the opinion has already noticeably tilted courts towards more defense-favorable rulings.

* Betty Boop case (Fleischer Studio v. AVELA). For a few months, it looked like the Ninth Circuit had eliminated trademark merchandising rights in characters that were out-of-copyright. Then it changed its mind; but still it liberated Betty Boop to the world.

* PhoneDog v Kravitz. An interesting battle over ownership of a Twitter account.

* Levitt v Yelp/Ascentive v. PissedConsumer. 47 USC 230 still works really, really well as an immunity. In Levitt, Yelp got a 230 dismissal that Yelp had tried to get advertisers to pay to manage consumer reviews. In Ascentive, the court rebuffed a plaintiff’s effort to use a trademark infringement claim against a consumer review website to work around 230.

* Habush v Cannon. Buying a person’s name as the trigger for keyword advertising doesn’t violate their publicity rights.

* UMG v. Shelter Capital. While everyone waits for the Second Circuit’s decision in Viacom v. YouTube, the Ninth Circuit stole some of that thunder with a powerful endorsement of the 17 USC 512 safe harbor. Too bad Veoh didn’t live long enough to enjoy the win.

* In re Rolando S. Rolando was convicted of felony identity theft for taking a classmate’s Facebook page for a joyride. My vote for the most interesting Internet Law case of 2011, and an instant cyberlaw classic. I’ve already added it to my Internet Law reader, and the students seemed to enjoy discussing the case.

Some of the Most Linked Blog Posts in 2011 (Per Topsy)

* New Advertising & Marketing Law Casebook Available for Review

* Court Orders Plaintiff to Turn Over Facebook and MySpace Passwords in Discovery Dispute — Zimmerman v. Weis Markets, Inc.

* “App Store” Isn’t Generic, But Apple Can’t Enforce Its Purported Trademark in the Term–Apple v. Amazon (Apple legal issues are always good link bait)

* Twitpic Modifies Terms and Claims Exclusive Rights to Distribute Photos Uploaded to Twitpic

* Republishing Entire Newspaper Story is Fair Use–Righthaven v. CIO

* Court Rules That Instant Message Conversation Modified the Terms of a Written Contract — CX Digital v. Smoking Everywhere (the most popular post of the year by far–a modern Contract Law classic)

* Second Life Ordered to Stop Honoring a Copyright Owner’s Takedown Notices–Amaretto Ranch Breedables v. Ozimals

Favorite “Overlooked” Posts

A few posts that maybe got overlooked a little:

* Cyberbullying and Restorative Justice [a Long-Delayed Post on DC v. RR]

* Racy Teen Photos Posted to Facebook Are Constitutionally Protected Speech–TV v. Smith-Green

* Marijuana Activist Can’t Change His Name to “NJWeedman.com” — In re Forchion

* Free-to-Consumers Ad-Supported Website Isn’t Illegally Priced–Cammarata v. Bright Imperial

* What Would a Government-Operated Search Engine Look Like in the US?

Lists of Yore

Previous top 10 lists from 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006. Before that, John Ottaviani and I put together a list of top Internet IP cases for 2005, 2004 and 2003.

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