Scribd Can’t Shake Copyright and Publicity Rights Lawsuit on Motion to Dismiss–Williams v. Scribd

By Eric Goldman

Williams v. Scribd, 3:09-cv-01836-LAB -BGS (S.D. Cal. June 23, 2010).

Larry Williams has written several books on commodities trading (their titles suggest they fit into the “Make Money Fast” genre). He alleges that rogue Scribd users, including the alias “GalaxiaMia Guy” [is it this user?], have repeatedly posted his books to Scribd. Williams sued Scribd for direct, contributory and vicarious copyright infringement and publicity rights misappropriation. The first amended complaint.

Scribd moved to dismiss but ran into a judge who appears to be a stickler about letting unmeritorious cases survive to summary judgment rather than crunching them quickly on 12(b)(6). The judge does nix the direct copyright infringement claim against Scribd. The judge notes Williams’ only argument in support of direct infringement is that GalaxiaMia Guy is “friends” on Scribd with Scribd’s CEO Trip Adler. Williams seems to think they are in cahoots with each other, but the judge rejects this ill-formed suspicion.

Along the way, the judge snarkily laments: “it’s no secret that the ‘friend’ label means less in cyberspace than it does in the neighborhood, or in the workplace, or on the schoolyard, or anywhere else that humans interact as real people.” Ouch! I’m guessing the judge isn’t a power Facebook user.

Then again, I don’t understand the “friend” vernacular on Scribd. Scribd allows people to “subscribe” to each other’s feeds–like a “follow” on Twitter, it isn’t mandatorily reciprocal like a Facebook “friend.” Trip Adler has over a half-million subscribers on Scribd, so if GalaxiaMia Guy was one of those half-million, that doesn’t mean anything. No matter what, the judge repeatedly says the “friends” argument is altogether irrelevant.

[This may be a good time to mention that I have been regularly using Scribd to post source materials. I often don’t blog about what I post; in some cases, I don’t even announce the posting to Twitter. So if you want to see everything I’m posting to Scribd, you can subscribe at Scribd.]

The court rejects Scribd’s motion to dismiss the contributory and vicarious infringement claims as well as Scribd’s 512 defense, all on the same basis that a 12(b)(6) is too early to make a decisive call. For example, regarding the 512 safe harbor, the court says that’s properly awarded on a 12(b)(6) only “where the answer to the question is nearly obvious,” which apparently isn’t the case here. The court also breezes through a 47 USC 230 defense to the publicity rights claim, rejecting the immunity on a motion to dismiss “[b]ecause there are open questions in this case about the extent to which Scribd participated in the alleged infringement.” Of course, many cases have granted 230 immunity on a motion to dismiss, but I’m guessing none of those were in front of Judge Burns.

Although Williams’ complaint lives to see another day, it’s also clear that Williams will ultimately lose. The judge disparages the complaint (the complaint “isn’t a model of lucidity”), criticizes plaintiff’s counsel for various factual omissions in the complaint (which “risks denting his credibility”), calls the remaining copyright claims “thin” and invites Scribd to seek summary judgment (“Scribd seems to have all of its arguments for summary judgment already teed up”). The judge continues:

Based on the evidence and the pleadings, the Court is inclined to say that it appears Scribd has the better arguments in this case; Scribd’s motion to dismiss is largely denied only because it is too early to raise those arguments. Williams should give serious consideration to whether he sincerely believes Scribd does not qualify for the safe harbor protections of the DMCA, as well as whether Scribd did not act as expeditiously as possible to remove Williams’s copyrighted works from its website as soon as it was asked to do so.

With a warning to the plaintiff like that, this case is an excellent candidate for a fee award to Scribd under 17 USC 505 when Scribd wins. I’ll be interested to see if the judge remains irascible when it comes time to penalize Williams for wasting everyone’s time.

Ben Sheffner has also blogged the case.

BONUS Blog Coverage! (kind of like a hidden track on a record album)

This is also an opportune time to note a recent ruling in Perfect 10 v. RapidShare, another opinion involving secondary copyright infringement also from the S.D. Cal. (in front of Judge Huff instead of Judge Burns). Like Scribd, RapidShare is a UGC web host that’s agnostic about the types of content users publish; like Williams, Perfect 10 is a wild-eyed plaintiff.

However, unlike Scribd, RapidShare isn’t eligible for the 512 safe harbors because it has not made the requisite Copyright Office filing. RapidShare is also unusual because it lacks any internal search functionality or navigation structure. Instead, each user self-publicizes the file’s URL.

Procedurally, Perfect 10 faced a higher burden of proof than Williams because Perfect 10 requested a preliminary injunction, which requires the court to consider Perfect 10’s likelihood of success.

Perfect 10’s direct copyright infringement claim, based on a 106(3) distribution, isn’t likely to succeed because RapidShare never indexes the file itself. The court also rejects an inducement claim.

Regarding contributory infringement, without 512 eligibility, Perfect 10 does not need to send 512(c)(3) notices. Instead, per Perfect 10’s typical modus operandi, Perfect 10 simply sent a disk containing its copyrighted photos and basically told RapidShare to block those photos. The court says the disk delivery gave RapidShare actual knowledge of infringement. Wow. I miss 512(c)(3) after all!

Nevertheless, RapidShare does not make a material contribution because “RapidShare does not provide an integrated service that allows users to locate and download infringing files.” Further, even though Perfect 10 didn’t identify infringing URLs, RapidShare’s other remediation efforts led the court to conclude that “RapidShare is using information provided by Plaintiff to locate and remove infringing materials, and is also taking independent steps to identify, locate, and remove infringing files.” Therefore, “RapidShare is [not] failing to take simple measures to prevent further damage to Plaintiff’s copyrighted works.”

Following this ruling, RapidShare countersued Perfect 10 for being a “copyright troll.” I’m not sure about the legal merits of RapidShare’s countersuit, but I heartily applaud its sentiments!