The digitization of content is forcing courts to take a fresh look at basic copyright concepts. The Disney v. Redbox case that I’ve recently blogged on addressed whether a digital download code is a “copy” of a work. Now a New York District Court has taken up the meaning of “display” in a case that could have big consequences for the way news outlets do business.
A photographer named Justin Goldman snapped a candid photo of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. Goldman posted the photo on Snapchat, whence it went viral, including on Twitter. The defendant news outlets, including Breitbart, Time and the Boston Globe, embedded the tweets together with the photo in stories concerning whether Brady was assisting the Celtics to recruit a player named Kevin Durant. Goldman sued for copyright infringement. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that they had merely linked to an image hosted on Twitter’s servers and did not themselves maintain copies.
Judge Katherine Forrest rejected this position. In her view, the location of the server on which an image is stored is merely a technical distinction that is not relevant to whether the copyright owner’s display right was infringed. Judge Forrest acknowledged that this view is contrary to the position of the 9th Circuit, but held that it is supported by Supreme Court precedent and the language and legislative history of the Copyright Act.
This decision does not necessarily mark the end of the road for the news organizations, however, In response to their plea that a loss would “cause a tremendous chilling effect on the core functionality of the web,” the judge stressed that they still have strong affirmative defenses. A fair use argument is always available, particularly to straight news organizations. The judge also raised the possibility that Goldman had released the photo into the public domain by posting it to Snapchat in the first place.
There’s a certain logic to Judge Forrest’s conclusion that the viewer’s experience of a photo is the same whether the defendant has copied it to its own server or linked to someone else’s. On the other hand, a central feature of Twitter and other social media platforms is that posts can be readily shared. The ecosystems of these platforms could be seriously disrupted if every shared post is regarded as a new publication for copyright purposes. Courts and possibly Congress will be working for the next several years to draw the appropriate lines.