Kirtsaeng Holds Copyright First Sale Doctrine Trumps Importation Rights

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The Copyright Act gives a copyright owner the exclusive right to sell copies of the copyrighted work. But once a genuine copy is sold, a lawful owner of that particular copy can resell or transfer what he bought without infringing the copyright – the copyright owner can no longer use the copyright to control the resale of that particular copy.  This copyright limitation has become known as the “First Sale Doctrine.”

A quirk in copyright law arose because the Copyright Act has a provision that prevents importation of a copyrighted work into the U.S. without the copyright owner’s permission.  (17 U.S.C. 602(a)(1)).  This ability of the copyright owner to prohibit importation seemed to conflict with the First Sale Doctrine when a copy is first sold outside of the United States.

In the 1998 decision Quality King Distributors, Inc. v. L’Anza Research, Int’l, Inc., the Supreme Court held that a copyrighted product manufactured in the U.S., but first sold in a foreign country, was subject to the First Sale Doctrine.  The result was that the copyright owner could not prohibit importation of the copyrighted product into the U.S.  But the question remained whether the First Sale Doctrine also applied to copyrighted works that were both manufactured and first sold outside the U.S.

In March 2013 the Supreme Court answered the question by applying the First Sale Doctrine regardless of where the copyrighted work is manufactured or first sold.  In Kirtsaeng dba Bluechristine99 v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., the products involved were textbooks manufactured and first sold in Thailand by the copyright owner, then later imported into the U.S. for resale without the copyright owner’s permission.   In a split decision, the Supreme Court held that the Copyright Act requires that the First Sale Doctrine applies to authentic, unaltered products that were lawfully manufactured and first sold by the copyright owner in a foreign country as well as in the U.S.

The Kirtsaeng decision provides no protection for sale of modified, adulterated, pirated or counterfeit copies, regardless of where they were made or sold.  Nor does it insulate parties from participation in fraud, breach of contract, unfair competition or other wrongful acts that are independent of copyright protections.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel has long recommended that its clients take a multi-faceted approach to preventing and remedying product diversion and counterfeiting, so they are able to effectively address the problem no matter where and how the misconduct occurs.

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Starting a Fire: "Tris" Listing Increases Risks of Prop 65 Claims

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Tris / TDCPP is a common flame retardant additive used in the manufacture of polyurethane foam, resins, plastics, textile coatings and rubber. Tris / TDCPP is found in a wide variety of common products such as upholstered furniture and padding. California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) recently added the chemical Tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (chlorinated Tris or TDCPP) to its ever-growing list of chemicals “known to the State of California to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.” As a result, Tris / TDCPP is now subject to Proposition 65, California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.

Prop 65 has a well-earned reputation as a “bounty hunter” statute, and is presently the subject of reform legislation, AB 227. This notorious “right to know” law does not ban any particular chemical from being used in products. In most cases it simply requires a generic warning label if a product contains chemicals found on the OEHHA’s Prop 65 list.

Because of the recent addition of Tris / TDCPP, products containing that chemical now must have a warning label in order to comply with Prop 65. Manufacturers and distributors who use outdated labeling and inadvertently fail to include the required warning are likely to be targeted by lawyers and claimants looking for violations on which they can capitalize. The penalties imposed by Prop 65 include fines as well as liability for the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and costs.

Prospective Prop 65 plaintiffs are required to serve a “Notice of Violation” and wait at least 60 days before they can file a lawsuit. (California Health and Safety Code section 25249.7(d)) A review of the 159 Notices of Violation with respect to Tris / TDCPP served in the past 6 months reveals that just two law firms are actually behind the onslaught of Prop 65 notices regarding Tris / TDCPP:

  • The Chanler Group of Berkeley, California, through attorney Josh Voorhees and the firm’s “usual plaintiffs” (Peter Englander, Laurence Vinocur, Russell Brimer and John Moore) – 146 of the 159 Notices (92%).
  • Lexington Law Group of San Francisco, California, through attorney Mark N. Todzo and the firm’s plaintiff, Center for Environmental Health – 13 of the 159 Notices (8%).

The products identified in these notices have included foam-cushioned upholstered furniture, such as chairs, ottomans, stools and benches, foam-cushioned mattress toppers, back and seat cushions, car seats, and foam mats and pads for children and infants.

Manufacturers and distributors should promptly assess whether their products contain Tris / TDCPP. CK&E’s lawyers are experienced in helping clients take action to protect themselves from Prop 65 liability, and to help put out the fire if a Notice of Violation is delivered.

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Deal done? Maybe Not, if it’s a Copyright Sale

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Copyright ownership sales are generally controlled by ordinary state contract laws, but there are some limits when dealing with an agent of the copyright owner. In the recent case of MVP Entertainment v. Frost, a film producer offered to purchase the movie rights to author Mark Frost’s book, “The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever.” The purchaser dealt with the attorney for the owner. In response to an email by the purchaser offering purchase terms, the attorney replied by email, “done . . . thanks!” Under many state laws that might have been enough to transfer ownership, but not so under copyright law.

The Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 204(a)) says that “transfer of copyright ownership . . . is not valid unless . . . a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent.” An attorney is an agent, so the attorney’s email saying the deal is “done” should be enough, shouldn’t it? Not quite, said the California Court of Appeal in MVP, because the owner disputed that his attorney had the owner’s actual authority to sell the copyright. In other words, the attorney was not the “owner’s duly authorized agent” for that purpose.

But the purchaser claimed it was led to believe that the attorney had authority, which is a theory known as “ostensible agency.” Under California law, a property owner can be bound by the acts of another person (the “ostensible agent”) whom the owner “intentionally or by want of ordinary care, causes or allows” another (the purchaser) to believe had the owner’s authority. Contracts can be created by “ostensible agents” in many circumstances. But the MVP decision held that copyright transfers cannot be done by “ostensible agents.” Copyright law requires that the purchaser deal directly with the owner, or with an agent expressly and “duly authorized” to act on behalf of the owner, with the goal that copyright interests are not inadvertently given and there is no uncertainty about what rights were transferred.

The takeaway from MVP is, when buying copyrights it’s wise to get the owner’s signature.  CK&E lawyers routinely guide clients through transfers and licensing of intellectual property including copyrights, trademarks and patent rights. As well, when a client’s rights in intellectual property are threatened, CK&E lawyers respond with effective enforcement.

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Keeping "Competition" in California’s Unfair Competition Law

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California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) provides broad protections to both consumers and businesses, prohibiting any form of conduct that can be found to be an “unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice.”  (California Business & Professions Code § 17200)  The UCL is particularly powerful because it can reach conduct that is not specifically illegal under any other law, and can also provide a remedy for any acts or omissions that are prohibited under other state or federal laws even if those laws do not allow private citizens to sue when they are violated.  A recent example is the case of Law Offices of Mathew Higbee v. Expungement Assistance Services, in which a lawyer used the UCL to sue a credit repair service that was not licensed to practice law. The lawyer alleged that he too was in the credit repair business and, as a result of the defendant’s violations of California’s attorney licensing requirements,  the competing lawyer was required to lower his prices and spend more money on advertising, lost clients and revenue, and the value of his law firm had diminished. Ordinarily, the statutes requiring a license to practice law cannot be enforced by private citizens. But here, the UCL was held to “borrow” the statutory violation to show an “unlawful business act or practice” that gave the plaintiff a claim.

Those already familiar with UCL know that it was modified by Proposition 64 in 2004, tightening the standing requirements so that an action could only be brought by a “person who has suffered injury in fact and has lost money or property” as a result of the alleged unfair competition. (B&PC section 17204)  Some courts had struggled with this new requirement, at times suggesting that the plaintiff would have to show that the defendant had directly taken money from the plaintiff as a result of the unfair competition.  Such a requirement would effectively eliminate “competition” out of the Unfair Competition Law:  It is rare that a business competitor could show that it gave money or property directly to a competitor as a result of unfair competition – and if it did happen, the plaintiff would probably have a breach of contract or fraud claim and probably would not need to use the UCL.

But over time it has become clear that Prop 64 did not not eliminate unfair competition claims between competitors.  In the Law Offices of Mathew Higbee case, the Court of Appeal in Orange County held that the UCL does not require that the parties have had direct dealings with each other in order to succeed “in alleging at least an identifiable trifle of injury as necessary for standing under UCL.”  The Court surveyed the law before and after Prop 64, and found the cases supportive of a rule that permitted business competitors to make unfair competition claims.  The standing requirement does not require in every instance that the parties have had direct dealings with each other. The Court emphasized that, provided that the “identifiable trifle of injury” resulting from the acts of unfair competition can be shown, “the UCL does not leave the court hamstrung, unable to even consider an action seeking injunctive relief just because the defendant engages in its purportedly unlawful activity via the Internet and has not had any direct business dealings with the plaintiff.”

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