Top Cyberlaw Developments of 2009

By John E. Ottaviani

(Thanks to Eric for letting me post this list here!)

[Eric’s note: some of you may recall John, a regular blog guest contributor from 2005-07. It’s great to have another contribution from him.]

Eric will post his own list later, but I thought we could start off the holiday season with one person’s view of the top Cyberlaw developments of 2009. It was an interesting year. While intellectual property issues continue to dominate, and we continue to see plaintiffs and their attorneys running smack into Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, we’ve also seen developments in the areas of Constitutional law, criminal law, and state and federal regulation. So, let’s recap 2009. Unlike David Letterman’s lists, this list is in no particular order of importance.

1. File Sharing Decisions.

After years of lawsuits against file sharers, we finally have two trial decisions. Both held against the peer-to-peer file sharers. Jammie Thomas managed to turn a 2007 verdict of $222,000 (which was later thrown out due to a mistrial) into a 2009 verdict of $1.29 Million. Her motion to reduce the award is pending.

Joel Tenenbaum received more favorable treatment and was subjected to only a $675,000 jury verdict after he admitted liability and his fair use defense was rejected by Judge Gertner. His motion to appeal/reduce the award is due to be filed in early January. Judge Gertner wrote a compelling decision urging Congress to modify the strict liability consequences of new technologies such as peer-to -peer file sharing. In her decision rejecting the fair use defense, Judge Gertner implored Congress “to amend the [Copyright Act] to reflect the realities of file sharing. There is something wrong with a law that routinely threatens teenagers and students with astronomical penalties for an activity whose implications they may not have fully understood. The injury to the copyright holder may be real, and even substantial, but, under the statute, the record companies do not even have to prove actual damages.” We’ll see if Congress listens.

2. Rise of Copyright First Sale Doctrine.

There were several decisions that turned on applications of the copyright “first sale” doctrine to new online situations. Section 209(a) of the Copyright Act permits the owner of a lawfully made copy of a work to sell or dispose of that copy without the consent of the copyright owner.

First, the held that resales of the AutoCAD software were permitted under the first sale limitations in Section 109(a). The court found that although the underlying documents were styled as “licenses,” the fact that the licensee was entitled to perpetual possession of the copies was the key fact.

We also had two cases (John Wiley & Sons; Pearson Education v. Liu) dealing with the importation of copyrighted works (mostly textbooks) printed abroad and then imported into the United States for sale. Two courts said these transactions are not protected by the first sale doctrine because of the importation provision in Section 602. The courts so far have been following dicta in the Supreme Court’s 1998 Quality King case that goods manufactured overseas and then imported are not protected by the first sale right, despite their reluctance to do so. We may get a resolution of this issue in 2010. The U.S. Supreme Court has invited the Solicitor General to file a brief in the Costco Wholesale Corporation v. Omega, which is on a petition for certiorari to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A third entry is Apple v. Psystar. Psystar specialized in creating copies of Apple’s Macintosh OS-X operating System and loading them onto Mac “clones.” The court rejected the first-sale doctrine defense because Psystar’s copies of the Macintosh OS-X operating system were not “lawfully made” within the meaning of Section 109. The parties subsequently settled all claims except for copyright infringement, and Apple obtained a permanent injunction against Psystar.

3. Demise of “Use in Commerce” Defense in Keyword Cases.

In Rescuecom v. Google, the Second Circuit reversed the district court and said that Google’s sale of trademarked keywords as ad triggers constitute a “use in commerce.” This probably is the end of the “use in commerce” defense in keyword advertising cases, which will now turn more on likelihood of confusion (or initial interest confusion) factors.

4. Internet Gambling.

Internet gambling continues to be regulated by a tangle of federal laws ill-adapted for the purpose. Some of the laws date back to the 1961 adoption of the federal Wire Act. This is an areas where Congress should really clean things up, especially with criminal liability sometimes at stake.

Proponents of online gambling took a couple of hits in 2009. In Interactive Media Entertainment and Gaming Association v. Holder, the Third Circuit upheld challenges to the Unlawful Intent Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) on Constitutional grounds. The UIGEA does not prohibit Internet gambling, but does prohibit gambling businesses from accepting financial payments in connection with bets that are illegal under any federal or state law. (This Act has effectively forced legitimate offshore gambling sites to stop taking bets from the United States). The Third Circuit held that the phrase “unlawful Internet gambling” is not vague, and that there is no Constitutionally protected privacy right to gamble in one’s home.

Earlier in the year, the Department of Justice ordered four banks to freeze over $34 million in payments owed to about 27,000 poker players. Although the legality of online poker in the United States is a gray area, the DOJ takes the position that online poker games are prohibited by the federal Wire Act. The DOJ position runs counter to several court decisions that have refused to apply the Wire Act to non-sports related Internet gambling. After the funds were seized, the affected poker sites reportedly reimbursed the players the money that was seized.

5. State Attempts to Regulate the Internet.

This trend, a favorite target of Eric’s ire, continued in 2009. Some more notable attempts include Maine’s passage of a little COPPA Act, banning the use of personal information about minors for marketing purposes (which the Maine Attorney General then refused to enforce), Kentucky’s seizing of domain names associated with alleged gambling websites (the legality of which is pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court), and Utah and other state’s attempts to put sex offender information online or require sex offenders to register websites to which they belong and their passwords.

6. Attempts to Criminalize Breaches of Terms of Use.

Lori Drew created a fake MySpace profile to humiliate a 13-year-old neighbor girl and was subsequently blamed for the girl’s suicide death. Drew was convicted of three misdemeanor counts of unauthorized access to computers under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for violating MySpace’s terms of service. In United States v. Drew, the court dismissed Lori Drew’s conviction, concluding that MySpace’s terms of service were Constitutionally vague. The result is not surprising, because terms of service are not generally written with criminal prosecution in mind. The MySpace terms at issue prohibited a wide variety of conduct but did not explain what activities would make a user’s access “unauthorized”. The user’s conduct was reprehensible, but not criminal.

7. Online Endorsements.

In October, for the first time since 1980, the Federal Trade commission updated its guidelines for advertisers on how to keep their endorsements and testimonial advertisements in line with the FTC laws. The new guidelines explicitly target online endorsements by bloggers and others who receive cash or in-kind payments to review a product. Bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. While the new guidelines caused a stir among bloggers, they seem to be a reasonable extension of the FTC’s disclosure guidelines in other contexts

8. DMCA Take-Down Notices.

In UMG Recordings v. Veoh Networks, we received some further guidance on what constitutes a proper take-down notice. Here, the court said the copyright owner has the burden of identifying “potentially infringing materials.” A letter merely listing recording artists whose works were allegedly infringing did not give the Internet Service Provider actual knowledge of infringement because the letter does not comply with the DMCA requirements. The court also said that the ISP was not on general notice of copyright infringement just because the website allows users to post music files, which are frequently infringing content.

9. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

There are too many cases to list here, and I am sure Eric has done (or will do) his own exhaustive compilation. The courts clearly expanded the scope of the Section 230 defense in various Craigslist cases (no liability for advertisements for guns or prostitution).

Barnes v. Yahoo showed us that service providers should not make statements and then not follow though. In that case, the plaintiff’s ex-boyfirend created fake personal ads for her on Yahoo and impersonated her in various online forums. She asked Yahoo to take the information down,. A Yahoo employee told her that Yahoo would take the profile down, but Yahoo did not do so until after the complaint was filed.. The Ninth Circuit upheld Yahoo’s Section 230 defenses for claims that Yahoo had an obligation to take the fake profiles down, and that Yahoo did not try to remove some objectionable material. But the court did permit the plaintiff’s claim to go forward that Yahoo had breached its oral contract with her to take the material down, which the Court held amounted to a modification of the “baseline” Section 230 rule.

10. Right to Privacy.

When someone publishes something on a MySpace website without her full name, and then deletes the post, does she have an expectation of privacy? In Moreno v. Hanford Sentinel, Inc., the California Court of Appeals said no. Here, the plaintiff posted an essay that was derogatory of her home town on her MySpace page and then deleted it six days later. In the meantime, the principal at the local high school saw the posting and submitted the poem to a local paper, where the editor (a friend of the principal) published the poem in the Letters to the Editor column and signed the plaintiff’s full name to it. The author and her family received death threats and her father had to close a 20-year old family business. However, the California Court of Appeals ruled that the principal did not invade the author’s privacy by handing the posting to the editor, and further held that the editor did not violate the author’s rights when it published her full name. (The case was remanded in order to address a claim of intentional infliction of emotional stress.)

Let’s hope 2010 brings even more exciting Cyberlaw developments. We have the potential for two Supreme Court rulings, in the Costco case (discussed above) and the Bilski case, which may address the validity of business method patents.