Top Cyberlaw Developments for 2006 – Part 2

By John Ottaviani

(Eric Goldman is away until the New Year. He left me the keys to the blog. I warned him that this may be like leaving the teenagers the keys to the house when the parents go away for the weekend!)

As Eric pointed out, our “Top Ten Cyberlaw Developments for 2006” list left out several notable developments. Here are a few more that were “near misses” for the list. In no particular order of importance:

· Electronic Voting – There was a lot of buzz about electronic voting and the perceived failures of the various systems. Given the proliferation of machine-human interfaces that we encounter on a daily basis, it is difficult to comprehend why problems continue to plague this industry.

· Apple v. Does – A California state appeals court held that online journalists had the same right to protect the confidentiality of their sources as offline reporters do under California’s reporters’ shield law. This result is not surprising, but it appears to be the first formal confirmation that courts would apply the same rules to traditional and online reporters. In addition, the court ruled that the federal Stored Communications Act does not permit a civil subpoena of stored e-mail from a service provider, only direct subpoenas from the account holders.

· Snow v. DirecTV – In June, the 11th Circuit held that, in order to be protected by the Stored Communications Act, an Internet website must be configured in some way as to limit ready access by the general public. An anti-DirecTV activist had created a public bulletin board, with a banner containing purported terms of service forbidding DirecTV representatives from entering the site or using its message board. However, the site was configured such that anyone in the public (including the DirecTV representatives) could enter the site, create a profile and use the message board. The court recognized Congress’s intent not to criminalize or create civil liability for acts of individuals who “intercept” or “access” communications or websites that otherwise readily are accessible by the general public. The court suggested that even a statement in the complaint that a plaintiff screens the registrants before granting access may have been sufficient to infer that the site was not configured to be readily accessible to the general public. However, in the absence of any such statements, the court granted DirecTV’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. As a result, website operators who want to take advantage of the provisions of the Stored Communications Act must take some affirmative actions to be able to demonstrate that the website was not configured to be readily accessible to the general public. Relying on those who are not the website’s intended users to voluntarily excuse themselves will not be sufficient.

· eBay v. MercExchange – In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, once a patent is found valid and infringed, an injunction does not automatically have to be issued. Trial judges are free to weigh competing factors, including the effect of enforcing a patent on the public interest, as the trial judges do in other injunction proceedings. The case revolved around eBay’s “buy it now” feature, which allows customers to purchase items without participating in an auction. In 2003, a jury found that this feature infringed on two of MercExchange’s patents. The Supreme Court’s decision requires the patent owners show “irreparable injury” resulting from defendant’s infringement in order to receive injunctive relief. While this standard should be relatively straightforward for patent owners who practice their technology, the decision may lessen the ability of patent owners who don’t practice their inventions to obtain an injunction (or threaten to obtain one as a negotiating tool).

If anyone else has any Cyberlaw developments that they feel should be on the “Top Ten” list, please feel free to let us know!

Our list of “Top Cyberspace Intellectual Property Cases” for 2006 will be available in January.