De Minimis Defense Doesn’t Protect Minimal Use of Concededly Infringing Material

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The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a copyright case based on a “minimal usage” or de minimis use defense. Richard N. Bell v. Wilmott Storage Services, LLC, et al., Case Nos. 19-55882, -56181 (9th Cir. July 26, 2021) (Wardlaw, J.) (Clifton, J., and Choe-Groves, J., concurring).

Richard Bell took a photo of the Indianapolis skyline and published it on various websites. Eleven years later, he registered the photo with the US Copyright Office. Bell later conducted an online reverse image search of his photo to identify potential infringers and subsequently filed more than 100 copyright infringement lawsuits. One of the sites on which Bell found the photo was VisitUSA.com. The image was only available to those who had conducted a reverse image search or knew the precise web address to the photo. Wilmott Storage Services purchased VisitUSA.com in 2012. In 2018, Bell notified Wilmott that it was displaying the photo without his permission. Wilmott removed the photo in response to Bell’s request. In 2019, Wilmott continued to display a copy of the photo, but at a slightly different address than before. Wilmott explained that its webmaster was supposed to remove the photo but instead only changed the file name. Wilmott subsequently removed the photo.

Bell sued Wilmott for copyright infringement in 2018, asserting that Wilmott infringed his right to “display the copyrighted work publicly” by making it accessible to the public on Wilmott’s server. Assuming infringement, Wilmott filed for summary judgment based on the affirmative defenses of de minimis use, fair use and the statute of limitations. The district court granted summary judgment to Wilmott on the de minimis use defense. Although Wilmott conceded that an identical copy of the photo was hosted on its server, the district court found no infringement. Bell appealed.

The Ninth Circuit noted that it had not previously addressed the issue of whether one “publicly displays” a work where it is accessible only to members of the public who either possess the specific pinpoint address or who perform a particular type of online search—here, a reverse image search. Applying Ninth Circuit precedent from Perfect 10 v. Amazon, the Court concluded that Wilmott publicly displayed the photo.

The Ninth Circuit also found that there was no place for an inquiry into whether there was de minimis copying because the “degree of copying” was total since the infringing work was an identical copy of the copyrighted photo. The Court explained that it and a majority of other circuits do not view the de minimis doctrine as a defense to infringement but rather as an answer to the inquiry whether an infringing work and copyrighted work are substantially similar so as to make the copying actionable. The Court reiterated that the de minimis defense applies to the amount of copying, not to the extent of the defendant’s use of the infringing work. The Court also explained that the de minimis copying defense is used to analyze whether so little of a copyrighted work has been copied that the allegedly infringing work is not substantially similar to the copyrighted work and therefore is non-infringing. However, once infringement is established, de minimis use is not a defense to an infringement action.

The Ninth Circuit also rejected the district court’s finding that Wilmott’s infringement was a “technical violation” because Wilmott did not know the photo was still on its website. The Court explained that copyright infringement is governed under the Copyright Act and nowhere does the statute provide any exception for the de minimis use of a concededly infringing work for a “technical violation.” Rather, the Copyright Act accounts for the culpability of the infringer by distinguishing willful from innocent infringement and limiting the statutory damages that can be imposed against the latter.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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