Justia U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Copyright
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The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's judgment after a jury trial and award of attorneys' fees in favor of Unicolors in a copyright infringement action against H&M, where Unicolors alleged that a design it created in 2011 is remarkably similar to a design printed on garments that H&M began selling in 2015. The panel held that courts may not consider in the first instance whether the Register of Copyrights would have refused registration due to the inclusion of known inaccuracies in a registration application. In this case the district court erred by imposing an intent-to-defraud requirement for registration invalidation and erred in concluding that Unicolors’s application for copyright registration did not contain inaccuracies despite the inclusion of confined designs. The panel held that the plain meaning of "single unit" in 37 C.F.R. 202.3(b)(4)(i)(A) requires that the registrant first published the collection of works in a singular, bundled collection. The panel explained that it is an inaccuracy for a registrant like Unicolors to register a collection of works as a single-unit publication when the works were not initially published as a singular, bundled collection. Furthermore, the undisputed evidence adduced at trial further shows that H&M included the inaccurate information "with knowledge that it was inaccurate." Therefore, the panel remanded to the district court with instructions to submit an inquiry to the Register of Copyrights asking whether the known inaccuracies contained in the '400 Registration application, if known to the Register of Copyrights, would have caused it to refuse registration. View "Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, LP" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court's order denying Dolores' motion for recovery of attorney's fees under the Copyright Act. The district court had granted summary judgment for Dolores on Doc's Dream's complaint seeking a declaration that the late religious leader Dr. Eugene Scott completely abandoned his works to the public domain. The district court then denied Dolores' motion for attorney fees under 17 U.S.C. 505. The panel held that, even when asserted as a claim for declaratory relief, any action that turns on the existence of a valid copyright and whether that copyright has been infringed invokes the Copyright Act. Therefore, attorney's fees may be available under section 505 of the Copyright Act. View "Doc's Dream, LLC v. Dolores Press, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to defendants in an action brought by plaintiff, a licensing company, alleging that the Burbank High School student show choirs failed to obtain licenses for their use of copyrighted sheet music in arranging a show choir performance. The panel held that plaintiff lacked standing to sue as to three of the four musical works at issue, and that the defense of fair use rendered the use of the fourth work noninfringing. In regard to the three works, plaintiff received its interests in the three songs from individual co-owners of copyright, without the consent of the other co-owners, and therefore held only nonexclusive licenses in those works. The panel held that the use of the fourth work was a fair use in light of the limited and transformative nature of the use and the work's nonprofit educational purposes in enhancing the educational experience of high school students. Finally, the panel held that the district court abused its discretion in denying defendants' motion for attorneys' fees under 17 U.S.C. 505, and remanded for the calculation of the award. View "Tresóna Multimedia, LLC v. Burbank High School Vocal Music Ass'n" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's action alleging copyright infringement by the Disney movie Inside Out of plaintiffs' characters called The Moodsters. After plaintiff developed The Moodsters, anthropomorphized characters representing human emotions, she pitched to entertainment and toy companies around the country, including The Walt Disney Company. The panel held that, under DC Comics v. Towle, 802 F.3d 1012 (9th Cir. 2015), lightly sketched characters such as The Moodsters, which lack consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes, do not enjoy copyright protection. Furthermore, under Warner Bros. Pictures v. Columbia Broad. Sys., 216 F.2d 945, 950 (9th Cir. 1954), The Moodsters are chessman in the game of telling the story. In this case, the panel applied the alternative "story being told" test and held that The Moodsters as an ensemble are no more copyrightable than the individual characters. Finally, the panel held that the district court did not err in dismissing plaintiff's claim for an implied-in-fact contract where plaintiff was required under California law to do more than plead a boiler-plate allegation, devoid of any relevant details. View "Daniels v. The Walt Disney Co." on Justia Law

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The estate of guitarist Randy Wolfe filed suit claiming that Led Zeppelin copied portions of Taurus, a song written by Wolfe and performed by his band Spirit, in Led Zeppelin's opening notes of Stairway to Heaven. The en banc court affirmed the district court's judgment after a jury trial in favor of Led Zeppelin, holding that the 1909 Copyright Act, which does not protect sound recordings, controlled its analysis. In this case, Taurus was an unpublished work registered in 1967. Because the deposit copy defines the four corners of the Taurus copyright, the en banc court held that it was not error for the district court to decline plaintiff's request to play the sound recordings of the Taurus performance that contain further embellishments or to admit the recordings on the issue of substantial similarity. The en banc court also held that plaintiff's complaint on access was moot. The en banc court affirmed the district court's challenged jury instructions; rejected the inverse ratio rule, overruling circuit precedent to the contrary; and held that the district court did not err in its formulation of the originality instructions, or in excluding a selection and arrangement instruction. Finally, the en banc court affirmed the district court with respect to the remaining trial issues and its denial of attorneys' fees and costs to Warner/Chappell. View "Skidmore v. Zeppelin" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal, for failure to state a claim, of an action brought by Great Minds, publisher of math curriculum Eureka Math. The complaint alleged a claim of copyright infringement against Office Depot. The panel held that Office Depot did not itself become a licensee of the "Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License" or otherwise infringe Great Minds' copyright by making copies of Eureka Math materials for a profit on behalf of school and school district licensees. In this case, there was no dispute that, if Office Depot were itself a licensee, commercial copying of Great Minds' material would fall outside the scope of the license and infringe Great Minds' copyright; under California law, the school and school district licensees' exercise of their rights under the license through the services provided by Office Depot did not result in Office Depot becoming a licensee; and the district court not abuse its discretion in denying leave to amend the complaint. View "Great Minds v. Office Depot, Inc." on Justia Law

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This appeal stemmed from the parties' longstanding dispute over the literary works of John Steinbeck. In this case, a federal jury in Los Angeles unanimously awarded plaintiff, as executrix of Elaine's estate (Elaine was the widow of Steinbeck), compensatory damages for slander of title, breach of contract, and tortious interference with economic advantage, and punitive damages against defendants. Determining that it had jurisdiction, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the orders granting summary judgment and striking defendants' defenses to tortious interference on grounds of collateral estoppel. Furthermore, the panel explained that it follows that the district court's decisions to exclude evidence related to defendants' different understanding of the agreement at issue or the validity of the prior court decisions were not abuses of discretion. The panel affirmed the compensatory damages award, holding that the record contained substantial evidence to support the awards on each cause of action independently. Furthermore, the compensatory damages were not speculative. The panel held that there was more than ample evidence of defendants' malice in the record to support the jury's verdict, thus triggering entitlement to punitive damages. However, the panel vacated and remanded with instructions to dismiss the punitive damages claims against Gail, Steinbeck's daughter-in-law, based on lack of meaningful evidence of Gail's financial condition and her ability to pay. View "Kaffaga v. The Estate of Thomas Steinbeck" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment and award of attorney's fees to Sanctuary Clothing in an action brought by Fiesta, alleging that Sanctuary clothing copied its fabric design. The panel held that the district court did not err in finding that the design had been published prior to registration and therefore Fiesta's registration application contained an inaccuracy. Furthermore, Fiesta included inaccurate information on its application with knowledge that it was inaccurate. Therefore, the inaccuracy in the registration rendered it invalid as to the design under section 411(b)(1)(B) of the Copyright Act. The panel also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney's fees to Sanctuary Clothing. View "Gold Value International Textile, Inc. v. Sanctuary Clothing, LLC" on Justia Law

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MRT filed suit against Microsoft, alleging patent infringement stemming from MRT's development of a technology to protect electronic files from content piracy. The Ninth Circuit held that claim preclusion barred the claims in this suit that accrued at the time of MRT's patent-infringement action, because these claims arose from the same events—Microsoft's alleged misappropriation of MRT's software—as the prior patent infringement claims. Furthermore, they merely offer different legal theories for why Microsoft's alleged conduct was wrongful. Accordingly, the panel affirmed the dismissal of these claims. However, the panel held that, under Howard v. City of Coos Bay, 871 F.3d 1032 (9th Cir. 2017), claim preclusion did not bar MRT from asserting copyright infringement claims that accrued after it filed its patent-infringement suit: namely, claims arising from the sale of Microsoft products after MRT filed its patent-infringement suit. Therefore, the panel reversed the district court's dismissal of these copyright infringement claims and remanded for further proceedings. View "Media Rights Technologies, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp." on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal of two copyright infringement actions against defendants, accusing them of copying Malibu's lace designs. The court held that, at the pleading stage, Malibu successfully alleged ownership of valid, registered copyrights. Malibu also plausibly alleged striking similarity between Malibu's designs and defendants' designs. Furthermore, the district court abused its discretion in denying Malibu leave to amend its allegations of access for a theory of substantial similarity. Finally, the panel dismissed as moot H&M's cross-appeal from the district court's denial of attorney fees. View "Malibu Textiles, Inc. v. Label Lane International, Inc." on Justia Law