Redbox scored a win in its copyright dispute with Disney as a federal district court judge refused to award the studio a preliminary injunction against Redbox’s sale of digital download codes.
Disney’s complaint was that Redbox was purchasing “Combo Packs” of Disney movies, which include a DVD, Blu-Ray disc and digital download code, opening the packages and selling its components separately. This, Disney claimed, encouraged consumers to violate the terms of copyright licenses set forth on printed inserts in the Combo Packs and warnings on the download websites Disney Movies Anywhere and RedeemDigitalMovies, which purport to restrict use of the codes to owners of the physical discs.
Redbox had thrown up two defenses to Disney’s copyright claim. First, that the download codes are equivalent to the physical discs under the first sale doctrine. Second, that Disney was guilty of “copyright misuse.”
The parties’ briefing focused primarily on the applicability of the first sale doctrine. This provides that once a copyright owner sells a particular copy of a work, such as a book, it cannot prohibit the buyer from subsequent sales or transfers of that copy. Redbox contended that the paper slip bearing the download code constituted a particular copy of the movie no less than the DVD and Blu-Ray discs in the Combo Packs. Disney conceded that the first sale doctrine applied to the DVD and Blu-Ray discs in the Combo Packs, but maintained that the download codes were not copies of the movies at all, but only keys by which consumers could then create copies of the work on their own computers. The court sided with Disney on this issue, holding that no “copy” existed at all until the consumer activated the code and downloaded the movie.
Somewhat surprisingly, despite the attention paid by the parties to the issue, the court held that the first sale doctrine was not applicable to the case because Disney’s misuse of copyright was sufficient to tip the scales in Redbox’s favor. The copyright misuse doctrine furnishes a defense to an infringement claim when a copyright owner is found to be leveraging its limited monopoly under copyright to obtain benefits outside the scope of the copyright monopoly. In one leading case, for example, the owner of a copyrighted medical coding system attempted obtain an unfair advantage over competitors by conditioning licenses of its system on a promise that the licensees would not use competing systems.
The court also rejected Disney’s breach of contract claim against Redbox. The outside of the Combo Pack box contained the notice “Codes are not for sale or transfer.” This, Disney claimed, established a binding contractual obligation on Redbox not to resell the download codes. Although the court acknowledged that notices printed on packaging can create enforceable obligations, it held that the notice on the Combo Packs was insufficient to do so.
This case presents an interesting takeaway. Although Disney prevailed on the first sale issue, which both parties apparently believed would be determinative, it lost on more mundane issues going to the wording of its license terms. It’s possible that with clearer and narrower drafting Disney will be able to accomplish its goal of preventing resale of download codes. In the meantime, even without a preliminary injunction in place, Disney could continue to pursue this case to trial.