Top Cyberlaw Developments of 2009 (Eric’s List)

By Eric Goldman

Guest blogger John Ottaviani recently dropped by to offer his perspectives on 2009’s top Cyberlaw developments. While I like his list a lot, I independently developed my own top 10 list that has a different emphasis. You might enjoy the contrasts. My list:

#10: Louis Vuitton v. Akanoc. After the judge ordered a web host to stand trial, a jury awarded the trademark owner $32 million due to the web host’s contributions to trademark infringement by its customers. This case stands out for the big damages award and as a rare example where an online provider was held liable under a contributory trademark liability theory. Many trademark practitioners are scratching their heads trying to figure out the import of this case, however. Does this case represent a dangerous new frontier of online liability? Was this a bad jury verdict fueled by poor defense lawyering? Or was this an appropriate outcome because the web host actually engaged in bad behavior that distinguishes it from most “legitimate” web hosts? 2010 may help us understand if this case is part of a new trend or an aberration.

#9: Gordon v. Virtumundo. We’ve seen a lot of silly anti-spam litigation, including the emergence of an entirely new group of entrepreneurs called “spam litigation entrepreneurs” who try to make a living on anti-spam lawsuits. These folks have a true love-hate relationship with spam; they hate it so much that they devote their lives to fighting it, but they love getting spam because each one is a potential revenue source. In general, judges hate spam a lot too, so over the years we have seen a number of doctrinally unsupportable results where judges bent the law to make sure spammers lost.

However, the judicial pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and in Gordon v. Virtumundo, the Ninth Circuit destroyed a serial anti-spam plaintiff’s entrepreneurial business in a doctrinally questionable but strongly worded opinion. In short order, a number of other spam litigation entrepreneurs have seen their lawsuits shut down with emphasis. Due to this ruling, the era of anti-spammers partying in courts may be on the wane.

#8: Zango v. Kaspersky. The question raised in this issue is simple to state but hard to answer: who should decide what constitutes spam, spyware or a virus? Vendors of software designed to curb these threats would like unfettered discretion to make their classifications; businesses who are classified as a threat would like judges to overturn adverse decisions. As it turns out, in a relatively obscure provision (47 USC 230(c)(2)), in 1996 Congress said that software vendors get to make classifications decisions and unhappy businesses can’t complain about them. In June, the Ninth Circuit upheld Kaspersky’s decision to classify Zango’s software as a threat and rejected Zango’s efforts to take the classification decision out of Kaspersky’s hands. This ruling gives enormous freedom to vendors of anti-spam/anti-spyware/anti-virus software to do their best to keep us safe.

#7: Columbia Pictures v. Fung. This case came out just before the Christmas holiday, so it got lost in the holiday hoopla a bit, but it’s a case of potentially significant import. First, it held that the specific torrent sites at issue induced copyright infringement. Second, the court denied the torrent sites’ eligibility for the DMCA online safe harbors. In part, the court said that an inducing website was categorically disqualified from the DMCA online safe harbors. Like the Akanoc case, it’s not entirely clear if this result was a legal aberration or an appropriate reaction to the defendants’ poor choices. Either way, it is possible that more “legitimate” websites may change their behavior to minimize their exposure based on the legal precedents in this case. If they do, this case could have a major impact on UGC websites.

#6: Lori Drew’s acquittal. Megan Maier’s suicide remains a heartbreaking tragedy, but unfortunately, overzealous prosecutors compounded the tragedy by prosecuting Lori Drew using bogus legal doctrines. The tragic facts got a jury to convict Drew of some misdemeanor crimes. Fortunately, the judge recognized the legal errors of the prosecution’s theory and the jury’s conclusions and granted Drew an acquittal despite the jury findings. The judge finally got to the right result as a matter of Cyberlaw, but the case remains a chilling testament to prosecutorial power.

#5: Harris v. Blockbuster. The rule is really clear. Service providers can’t amend online user agreements in the provider’s sole discretion without notice. As the Ninth Circuit informed us in 2007, those contracts don’t fare well in court. So although these provisions are in just about every online user agreement, they don’t work–as Blockbuster found out the hard way.

As part of the litigation detritus from the Facebook Beacon experiment, users sued Blockbuster for sharing their rental transactions with Facebook and all of their friends, allegedly in violation of the Video Privacy Protection Act. Blockbuster tried to bust the class action by invoking the contract’s arbitration clause. Instead, because Blockbuster had the impermissible amendment provision in its user agreement, the court said the contract was illusory and refused to send the case to arbitration.

This case should signal the end of the ridiculous amendment clauses. We’ll see how long it takes the lawyers to give the provisions up.

#4: Battles Over the First Sale Doctrine. We have seen numerous legal battles this year over the First Sale defenses in both copyright and trademark law.

Copyright owners try to engage in price discrimination by carving up the world into geographic territories with different prices for the same product. If they can use copyright law to keep the cheap products from entering the other geographic market, this keeps the product from effectively price-competing with itself.

This year, two cases involved European textbooks which were functionally equivalent to the textbooks being sold in the United States at higher prices. Entrepreneurs were buying the cheap European texts, shipping them to the US and then selling them online. The entrepreneurs invoked the First Sale doctrine, which says that copyright law can’t prohibit the legitimate purchaser of a tangible copyrighted item from reselling the item to whomever they want at whatever price they want.

However, copyright law has another provision that allows copyright owners to block the importation of copyrighted works into the United States. In the 1998 Quality King case, the US Supreme Court said that the First Sale doctrine trumped the importation right when the goods were manufactured in the US, sold overseas, and then imported back to the US. However, in Pearson v. Liu and John Wiley & Sons v. Kirtsaeng, the judges said that the importation right trumps the First Sale doctrine when the goods were initially manufactured overseas. This issue is ripe for further adjudication, though. A similar importation case, Costco v. Omega, is pending before the US Supreme Court, which is deciding whether or not it wants to hear the case. If it does, we may get clearer instructions about the interplay between the First Sale doctrine and the copyright importation right.

Copyright’s First Sale doctrine was also at issue in Vernor v. Autodesk, where the purchaser of a software disk wanted to resell the disk on eBay despite restrictions in the software licensing agreement barring such resales. The court held that the First Sale doctrine applied and allowed the resale. There are other cases percolating through the court system involving the resale of tangible media contained copyrighted material despite contractual restrictions on resale, so this issue remains a hot one.

Trademark owners also try to prevent competition with their products that leak out of their official channels of distribution. eBay has been the site of a couple battles over the First Sale doctrine in trademark law. In Mary Kay v. Weber, the court held that the trademark First Sale doctrine may not permit the eBay resale of expired cosmetics by a Mary Kay independent beauty consultant. In Beltronics v. Midwest, a trademark owner shut down the eBay resale of radar detectors that had leaked out of the manufacturer’s channel and were being sold (at a cheaper price) without the manufacturer’s warranty.

Clearly, the First Sale doctrine matters a lot to eBay and other consumer-to-consumer e-commerce websites. With a possible pending Supreme Court case and lots of IP owners looking to stifle competition from goods they have already profited from, expect the First Sale doctrines to get lots of attention in 2010.

#3: 47 USC 230. In my opinion, 47 USC 230 is the most important Cyberlaw statute, so new 230 developments will make my top 10 list for the foreseeable future. This year, there were three federal appellate court rulings interpreting 47 USC 230(c)(1):

* in Barnes v. Yahoo, the Ninth Circuit held that 230 protected a website’s negligent delay in removing user content. However, if the website had promised removal to the user, the user could have a viable claim for promissory estoppel that would not be preempted by 230.

* in FTC v. Accusearch, the Tenth Circuit held that a website’s resale of pretexted phone records—even if those records were supplied by third party suppliers—did not qualify for 47 USC 230 protection because of their illegality.

* in Nemet Chevrolet v., the Fourth Circuit held that a consumer review website was not liable for user-supplied reviews, even when the website worked with the user to submit the review, and despite the plaintiff’s unsubstantiated claims that the website had fabricated the reviews itself.

Really, the big 47 USC 230 news in 2009 is the absence of big news. Specifically, 2009 reinforced that the Ninth Circuit’s 2008 decision—one of the most significant defense losses under 47 USC 230—did not rip open a major hole in the statutory protection of websites. Of the 13 cases that I have seen that have cited the en banc opinion, eleven have cited the case in favor of the defense. (See the list here). The two exceptions are the Accusearch case, mentioned above, and the New England Patriots’ lawsuit against StubHub over season ticket resales, an odd opinion that may not have much influence. Therefore, despite our fears about, the 47 USC 230 immunity remained healthy and vibrant in 2009. For more on this topic, see my special recap of 47 USC 230’s year-in-review for 2009.

#2: Keyword Advertising Battles. Keyword advertising battles are another perennial topic on these year-in-review lists. A multi-billion dollar a year industry has sprung up around the sale of keyword-triggered advertising, including some keywords that may be third party trademarks, and trademark owners don’t like it at all. This has led to a multi-front battle between trademark owners, keyword advertising sellers (such as Google), and keyword advertising buyers.

One of the biggest Cyberlaw cases of the year was the Second Circuit’s ruling in Rescuecom v. Google. In the district court in 2006, Google won an easy victory against a trademark owner because the court said that Google did not make the requisite “use in commerce” of the trademark. The Second Circuit reversed the district court, sending the case back for further proceedings. The reversal does not ensure Google’s defeat; Google will now litigate other legal doctrines and might very well win on one of those. However, the Second Circuit’s opinion largely spells the end of any “use in commerce” defense by either keyword advertising sellers or buyers.

Because of the “use in commerce” defense’s demise, keyword advertising cases will now likely turn on whether the advertisements create a likelihood of consumer confusion. One case, Hearts on Fire v. Blue Nile, offered up a new and complicated test for gauging consumer confusion. If other courts adopt this test, keyword advertising cases will get even more expensive and complicated—highlighting how important it was that the Rescuecom case eliminated an easy way to end these lawsuits early.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that keyword advertising battles have been taking place for at least a decade, we have not heard what a jury thinks about the practice—until the November jury ruling in Fair Isaac v. Experian. In that case, the jury found for the defense that the keyword-triggered ads did not create the requisite likelihood of consumer confusion. It remains to be seen if other juries reach the same conclusion. If they do, keyword advertising lawsuits should slowly fade away over time because the trademark owners can’t win in the end.

As for now, keyword litigation is going strong and hardly fading away. In Spring, Google made two changes to its trademark policies where it voluntarily agrees to take down certain types of ads at the trademark owner’s request. In May, Google extended its more liberal US-based policy to nearly 200 other countries, replacing the more restrictive policies it had in place there. Shortly thereafter, Google modified its US policy to do less for trademark owners in situations involving product resales, review websites and sales of complementary/replacement parts. Trademark owners were none too pleased with these changes. In response to these changes and the door opened by the Second Circuit Rescuecom decision, Google got hit with about a dozen new lawsuits, including some class action lawsuits, of which I believe 10 are currently still active.

Finally, all of the wrangling in court and over voluntary trademark policies could be mooted by legislative action, and for the third time, the Utah state legislature considered resolving the keyword advertising issue itself. A law regulating keyword advertising passed the Utah house but died in the Utah senate. Expect the pro-regulatory forces to round up the troops for a fourth try in 2010.

#1: FTC Endorsement Guidelines for Bloggers. The Obama administration has breathed new life into a pro-regulatory FTC, and the FTC sure is interested in all things Internet. The FTC has been nosing around Internet privacy and Internet marketing practices pretty carefully, and I expect 2010 to bring more FTC pronouncements designed to tackle the Internet.

But nothing stirred up a hornet’s nest of confusion and anger in 2009 like the FTC’s Endorsement and Testimonials Guidelines. I think it’s fair to say that the FTC’s guidelines rollout was a complete failure. As usual, the FTC’s guidelines were mealy-mouthed and filled with conditional statements (the FTC hates to lay out bright line rules that might constrain their future discretion). However, the FTC’s general gist was clear: bloggers should disclose when they receive financial or other consideration for their blog posts.

Unfortunately, this general principle leaves open some fairly fundamental questions, like when is disclosure required in situations less clear than straight cash-for-posting, and where should disclosure be made, especially in space-constrained media like Twitter. Needless to say, unhappy bloggers can be very noisy, so blogger response to the FTC’s announcement was loud and vituperative. The FTC tried to backpedal a little by saying that it did not intend to pursue individual bloggers, but this announcement only reinforced that bloggers do not understand what the FTC wants from them.

Meanwhile, the FTC’s proposed guidelines also took an interesting position about an advertiser’s liability for rogue blogger’s posts. This position is generally consistent with government enforcement agencies’ views that commercial players can be legally responsible for content they endorse or link to (see, e.g., my comments on the SEC’s liability-for-linking policy), but this position runs directly contrary to 47 USC 230’s provisions that say A isn’t liable for B’s online content. As a result, I believe that part of the FTC’s proposed guidelines violate 47 USC 230 and would not survive a court challenge.

Overall, the firestorm over the FTC’s Endorsement and Testimonials guidelines is a small part of a larger effort to regulatorily separate advertising from content. The Internet has collapsed those distinctions, perhaps irreparably, so regulators may be trying to accomplish the impossible. Nevertheless, the FTC seems determined to prop up the distinction, and I expect 2010 will bring more FTC efforts on this front.

* * * * *

While that concludes my top 10 list, there were a number of other interesting developments in 2009 that are worth a brief note:

* Moreno v. Hanford Sentinel. A woman trashed her hometown in an obscure but public MySpace posting and learned there is no “do-over” for Internet content publication. My vote for the most factually interesting Cyberlaw case of 2009.

* Google’s keyword metatag announcement. Courts generally treat the inclusion of third party trademarks in keyword metatags as per se trademark infringement. But Google has confirmed that it ignores keyword metatags. Will courts get the message?

* Google Book Search settlement. If the Google Book Search settlement ever gets approved, it may reshape the book industry, redefine libraries, and make all kinds of other socially significant changes. But the list of opponents to the settlement is long and growing. Professor James Grimmelmann of New York Law School is our community’s maven for all things “GBS.”

* Kindle book deletion. The Kindle store sold e-books it didn’t have the right to sell, so it took them back. Users learned of a key factual difference between physical books and e-books—the vendor can remotely make e-books go poof.

* States’ efforts to impose sales tax efforts based on marketing affiliates. For years, states have been looking for ways to make online retailers collect sales tax for them. They are generally stopped by Supreme Court precedent, but in 2008 New York finally figured out a workaround. The New York statute said that marketing affiliates were like traveling salespeople and thus created the physical nexus required for a state to impose sales tax collection obligations. The New York statute survived its first legal challenge, which opened the floodgates of other states passing similar laws hoping to get their piece of the action. Meanwhile, online retailers aren’t just rolling over; instead, they are threatening to cut off (or actually cutting off) marketing affiliates in states that enact these laws—thus potentially costing the states income tax from the marketing affiliates’ revenue, and creating the potential for the entire affiliate industry to be torn apart.

* Maine kids privacy law. Maine thought it could pass a law banning marketing to kids. It was wrong. The state had to withdraw the law and go back to the drawing board.

* UMG v. Veoh. Veoh won another nice DMCA online safe harbor victory.

* US v. Kilbride. The Ninth Circuit says that online obscenity prosecutions need to evaluate national attitudes towards obscene content, not local community standards.

* Kentucky domain name seizure. Kentucky tried to grab 141 domain names that enabled Kentucky residents to engage in illegal gambling. But those domain names also serviced customers for whom the gambling was completely legal, so the Kentucky courts are rethinking the grab.

* FTC v. Sears. As another example of the new pro-regulatory winds blowing through the FTC, the FTC cracked down on Sears for installing spyware on users’ computers that looked at the users’ hard drives, even though Sears paid the users for the installation and disclosed the spyware’s snooping in the user agreement (though in an inconspicuous manner). This case has made a lot of lawyers concerned that adverse disclosures in user agreements won’t satisfy the FTC.

* Facebook the Drama Queen. Ah, Facebook. Love it. Hate it. Facebook is a pretty nifty site and part of my daily routine, but boy, they sure do have a knack for stirring up trouble.

– In February, they made a relatively modest change to their user agreement that caused people to freak out.

– In response to this, Facebook took the provocative step towards user self-governance. Facebook let users vote on some choices and promised to be bound by the results, but with an asterisk: Facebook decided what options users could vote on, and Facebook would honor those choices only if a prohibitively large number of users exercised their franchise. Still, it was a nice gesture towards cyberspace community self-governance.

– In summer, they tried to settle their Beacon litigation, but that also reminded folks of how much Beacon irritated them in the first place.

– Summer also brought allegations of click fraud on Facebook, and lawsuits followed.

– Finally, in Thanksgiving, Facebook rolled out some changes to its privacy options that it pitched as giving users more choices, but it also took away some choices and defaulted users into some options that surprised them.

Given this track record, is it unrealistic to expect more Facebook drama in 2010?

* Estavillo v. Sony. Speaking of self-governance, virtual world enthusiasts would love to establish the legal proposition that virtual worlds are legally equivalent to governments and therefore obligated to restrain their actions just like governments are. One virtual world enthusiast sued Sony for kicking him off the network, claiming that Sony was legally governed as a “company town” and therefore lacked the discretion to kick him off. WRONG (and it wasn’t even close).

* Wikipedia’s policy change. In August, the English-language Wikipedia announced that it was going to tighten up its editorial policies, and people Freaked Out. (In fact, I have predicted that Wikipedia cannot avoid increased editorial restrictions over time, so this change should not have been surprising). However, it turns out that everyone got it wrong, and Wikipedia’s editorial changes are far less dramatic (and consequential) than initially reported. I will post a separate recap on Wikipedia shortly.

If you would like a stroll down memory lane, you can see my previous top 10 lists from 2008, 2007 and 2006. Before that, John Ottaviani and I put together a list of top Internet IP cases for 2005, 2004 and 2003.