Sharing a Publication at Work May Constitute Copyright Infringement

by: Kelly A. Williams, a shareholder at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

wd-pa-courthouseDo you work in an office that receives a single copy of a trade publication, which is passed around the office for multiple people to read?  Be careful because such use may constitute copyright infringement—at least that is what one publisher argues.

In Energy Intelligence Group, Inc. v. The United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union, AFL-CIO/CLC (“USW”), Civ. Action. No. 11-00428, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123080 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 29, 2013) (Judge Conti), Energy Intelligence Group, Inc. and Energy Intelligence Group (UK) Limited (collectively “EIG”) filed suit to seek damages from Defendant USW for sharing its single subscription to the “Oil Daily” with multiple USW employees.  USW, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a labor organization, which provides collective bargaining services to its union members.  USW subscribed to the Oil Daily, beginning in 1992.  From 1992 to 1999, the Oil Daily was sent in paper copy.  Starting in 1999, EIG began sending the Oil Daily in electronic form.  USW subscribed to the Oil Daily through a subscription agent, EBSCO Information Services (“EBSCO”).

EIG’s suit involves 2,880 issues of the Oil Daily, which were published from December 1999 to March 2011.  EIG owns valid U.S. copyright registrations for each of these publications and provides copyright notices on its website, articles, emails and publications, including on the Oil Daily itself.  In February 2006, EIG sent a letter to all subscribers informing them that single-user subscriptions were not to be shared by multiple readers.  This letter was not sent directly to USW but was sent to EBSCO.  However, the court determined that EBSCO was USW’s agent and this constituted notice to USW, as well as EBSCO.

Mary Dimoff, USW’s librarian, was the sole subscriber to the Oil Daily.  When she received the Oil Daily in hard copy, she maintained a list of USW recipients to receive the Oil Daily, and she routed the paper to these individuals over the course of three to four days.  When Ms. Dimoff started receiving the Oil Daily in electronic form, she forwarded it to the recipients via email.  Through various communications with EIG and EBSCO, Ms. Dimoff revealed to EIG that she was sharing her subscription, and EIG filed suit.

USW conceded that it copied and distributed the 2,880 issues of the Oil Daily.  However, USW asserted that it was permitted to do so based upon several different defenses including, implied license, equitable estoppel, fair use, and laches.  USW also argued that damages should be limited to the three-year period prior to the filing of the complaint.  The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment on the defenses and the damages issues.

The court held that factual issues precluded the entry of summary judgment on all but one issue which was the equitable estoppel defense.  The court concluded that it would be impossible for USW to prove that the equitable estoppel defense applied because it could not prove all four factors necessary to establish such a defense: (1) the plaintiff had actual or constructive knowledge of the defendant’s infringing conduct; (2) the plaintiff intended or expected that defendants would act on the plaintiff’s misrepresentations or concealments; (3) the defendant was ignorant of the true facts; and (4) the defendant relied on the plaintiff’s conduct to its injury.

The court found that USW had sufficient evidence to prove that EIG had at least constructive knowledge of the infringing conduct for approximately three years before filing suit and thus, met the first factor.  However, USW could not prove the last three factors.  As for the second factor, the court determined that EIG did not misrepresent or conceal its intent to assert its copyrights because it affixed its copyright notice on every edition of the Oil Daily.  With respect to the third factor, the court rejected USW’s argument that it acted innocently because it had the notice of the copyright on the Oil Daily and because USW never followed up with EBSCO or with EIG to confirm if its actions were permissible.  Finally, the court held that USW could not show that it relied on EIG’s conduct to its detriment because EIG provided the copyright notice directly on the Oil Daily and sent its terms and conditions to EBSCO.  Therefore, EIG made no misrepresentations and did not conceal its copyrights.

The Energy Intelligence Group case is an interesting copyright case.  For more details on the other defenses and the factual issues raised, you can read the entire case here.

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