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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Closing the Door to Class Actions for False Advertising Claims

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Advertising claims are often the subject of lawsuits in California. Ads, slogans, packaging or even product images are claimed to be “false or misleading.” Plaintiffs make claims under a variety of consumer protection laws, such as California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), Business and Professions Code section 17200; False Advertising Law (FAL), Business and Professions Code section 17500; and the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), Civil Code section 1750.

But an individual who wants to sue has a problem, because a single person who claims to have been misled into purchasing a product will usually only have purchased one product and therefore has just a few dollars (or sometimes only pennies) of “out of pocket” money damages. It’s usually not realistic for a lawsuit to be pursued for just a few dollars. As a result, plaintiffs’ lawyers sometimes try to make a “class action” claim to join together many people who can each claim a few dollars of damages, which can add up to a great deal of money. In a class action, the plaintiff can assert that similar injuries happened under similar circumstances to a large number of people, and the plaintiff should be allowed to make a claim for all of the damages to that group of people. Further, the lawyers for the class action can make claims for attorneys’ fees that are much larger than they would otherwise be permitted for representing an individual claimant.

To proceed with a class action lawsuit, the plaintiff must show the court that the proposed “class” meets the rules for “certification.” That is a big hurdle in many cases, because it requires that the plaintiff show that all of the proposed class members have similar claims and issues. A recent ruling from the United States District Court, Central District of California shows how hard it can be to prove that there are such common claims and issues. In Mara Chow v. Neutrogena Corp., Case No. CV 12-04624, the plaintiff claimed that Neutrogena had made false and misleading labels and advertising for its “anti-aging” skincare products, including that the products are “clinically proven,” can cause a person to look younger, and can prevent and repair signs of aging within one week. The plaintiff tried to show that she had a proper class action because all of the class members had similar claims. But District Judge Manuel L. Real refused to certify a class.

Judge Real found that too many individual questions existed as to whether the Neutrogena product had worked as advertised for each individual class member. In other words, each member would have to individually show whether the claims were false as to that member. Further, some of the claims required that each class member would have to show that she “relied” on the false advertising when she purchased the Neutrogena product, which also could only be proved individually and not on a class-wide basis. But the news wasn’t all bad for plaintiff – the individual plaintiff was allowed to continue asserting her own individual claim for a few dollars in damages. No one will be surprised when the case is dismissed, because it isn’t worth pursuing.

CK&E’s lawyers have experience handling all aspects of claims of false or misleading advertising under the UCL, FAL and CLRA. CK&E’s lawyers are particularly well-versed in developing methods to reduce the risk of such lawsuits before they are filed. If a claim does arise, it often comes first to a business in the form of a demand letter, and CK&E attorneys are skilled at responding to such demand letters in ways that eliminate or minimize the claim and can lead to a quick and cost-effective resolution.

Update:  The plaintiff filed a petition for permission to appeal the District Court’s Order denying class certification.  On April 23, 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the petition for permission to appeal.  The lawsuit was subsequently settled and dismissed with prejudice on June 10, 2013.

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Prop. 65 Reform — Is a Safe Harbor from Bounty Hunters on the Horizon?

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California’s now-infamous Proposition 65 (Prop. 65, Cal. Health & Safety Code § 25249.5) allows a private citizen to file a lawsuit against any business that fails to post adequate warnings about the presence of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm.  The private enforcer may seek an injunction, penalties of up to $2500 per violation, per day, and an award of attorneys’ fees.

Assembly Member Mike Gatto (43rd District of California)  recently proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 227, that would reform Prop. 65 by providing a “safe harbor” in the form of a 14-day period for businesses to correct alleged violations.  If enacted as proposed, a business who receives a demand under Prop. 65 would have a brief opportunity to demonstrate its compliance with Prop. 65 requirements to the California State Attorney General, or the responsible city attorney or district attorney.  If the business takes advantage of that “safe harbor” then the claimant would be barred from filing a lawsuit against that business.

While the purpose of Prop. 65’s private enforcement provision is to allow private citizens to act on behalf of the public to ensure warnings are properly posted, supporters of AB 227 criticize Prop. 65 as a “bounty hunter” statute that primarily benefits plaintiff’s attorneys.  In 2011, businesses paid a total of nearly $16 million to settle lawsuits brought by  private citizens, of which almost $12 million was paid to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.  In fact, nearly half of the attorneys’ fees were paid to a single firm: The Chanler Group.

AB 227 would give businesses the opportunity to come into compliance with Prop. 65 warning requirements without paying exorbitant settlement fees to prevent costly litigation.  But businesses would have to take swift action.  As CK&E attorneys John A. Conkle, Amy Burke and Mark Riedel discussed in their November 2012 presentation to the Personal Care Products Council, What’s Your Game Plan?, it is important for businesses to develop strategies for ensuring regulatory compliance and for handling notices of violation quickly and efficiently.  AB 227, if signed into law, would be another reason that businesses should prepare contingency plans for the day that they receive a notice of violation from plaintiffs seeking to take advantage of Prop. 65 — a business could avoid being sued at all if it responds quickly and correctly to take advantage of the safe harbor.  CK&E advises clients in regulatory compliance, responding to warning and demand letters, and developing an individualized game plan to suit each client’s needs.

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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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