A Sound First Amendment Decision with an Odd Fair Use Kicker

A couple of weeks ago, in my post about ghost guns and trademark infringement, I argued that the EFF is wrong to defend the anonymity of the parties who flaunted their alleged infringements on Twitter. In that case, the individuals had manufactured DIY guns (ghost guns) in collaboration with the materials and tools provided by Defcad, Inc.; they had affixed their weapons with both word and design marks owned by the gun-control advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety; and they had posted images of their products on social media along with deprecating comments about Everytown.

Because there appears to be a triable issue of trademark infringement in which the Doe defendants are plausibly implicated, I disagree with EFF’s view that the anonymous individuals used the marks for the sole purpose of protected speech. Consequently, pursuant to Everytown’s claim of infringement, its interest in discovering the identities of those individuals is reasonable in that light.

I further argued in that post that considering anonymity as coextensive to the speech right should be weighed on a case-by-case basis, and in that example, it is absurd to allege that anonymity is necessary for the general expression anti-gun-control views in this country. There, the plaintiff has reason to argue that anonymity is merely a strategy by Doe defendants to avoid liability rather than a means of protecting their First Amendment rights.

A Poor Use of Copyright Law

By contrast, a colleague brought a new matter to my attention recently in which a wealthy claimant of questionable nature sought to use copyright law and the provisions of DMCA Section 512(h) to expose an anonymous critic—and apparently for no purpose other than to expose and intimidate the critic. No doubt, somebody will cite this story as an example of a powerful figure “weaponizing copyright” to stifle the speech of a defenseless individual, and that’s one reason I’m writing about it. Because let’s be clear:  copyright advocates don’t appreciate copyright law being used for purposes other than to protect creative expression and promote the progress of same.

This case involves an anonymous blogger who devotes his/her energy to mocking or criticizing the uber wealthy and politically powerful, including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Nancy Pelosi, et al. I have neither an opinion about, nor interest in, the content of the blogs or tweets, as there is no question that anyone, whether anonymous or not, is free to criticize anyone else, especially public figures. But apparently, this party got the attention of billionaire Brian Sheth …

In a series of six tweets accompanied by photos, an anonymous Twitter user who goes by @CallMeMoneyBags criticized Brian Sheth, a private-equity billionaire. Within a few weeks of the postings, a mysterious entity called Bayside Advisory LLC registered copyrights in the photos, petitioned Twitter to take them down, and served a subpoena on Twitter for information identifying the person behind the @CallMeMoneyBags account.

That summary is at the top of the California District Court opinion denying Bayside Advisory’s subpoena to compel Twitter to unmask MoneyBags. Bayside had made the request under DMCA Section 512(h), which allows a copyright owner to compel an OSP to disclose the identity of an alleged infringer without first filing a claim against a Doe defendant and later pursuing the party’s identity in discovery.

The rationale of the statute, when all parties are acting in good faith, is that a copyright owner with a sincere intent to protect his rights, should want to identify an alleged infringer before deciding how or whether to remedy the matter. This knowledge can benefit both rightsholder and alleged infringer. But the presumption should be that contemplation of a meritorious claim of copyright infringement, and not merely an intent to expose the anonymous speaker for other purposes, is the only reasonable basis for enforcing the subpoena,

Here, the available facts imply a narrative in which Bayside, a party with potentially limitless resources, is misusing copyright law for the sole purpose of exposing and censoring a critic. The entity LLC appears to have been formed exclusively for the purpose of hastily acquiring the rights to the six photos at issue and then registering the works with the Copyright Office after the alleged infringement of the images by MoneyBags.[1]

Although 512(h) allows a subpoena without first filing a claim of infringement, the court clarifies that the statute expressly states that the provision is subject to Federal Rule 45 and that, “A recipient of a DMCA subpoena may therefore move to quash on the basis that the subpoena would require disclosure of material protected by the First Amendment.”

Views will vary as to whether the First Amendment encompasses a right to speak anonymously. The EFF and similar organizations seem to think it always applies; others may say it never applies. As stated in that ghost gun post, I believe it depends on whether anonymity is reasonably necessary to protect the speech at issue and whether the speech itself may not be protected, which it is not if it amounts to copyright infringement.

In this instance, the resources and legal maneuvers the claimant appears willing and able to exploit merely to silence personal criticism makes a strong case for a nexus between the speaker and his/her anonymity. This is further emphasized by the court’s reasonable inference that Sheth is hiding his own identity behind the LLC, the website for which, happens to be a one-pager with no clear purpose.

If the Court were assured that Bayside had no connection to Brian Sheth, a limited disclosure subject to a protective order could perhaps be appropriate. But the circumstances of this subpoena are suspicious. As far as the Court can tell, Bayside was not formed until the month that the tweets about Sheth were posted on Twitter.  

Suffice to say, the complaint reeks of shadiness and a deplorable use of one fragment of the Copyright Act for a purpose that appears to have nothing to do with copyright. Based on the limited facts available, I believe the court acted correctly in finding that the First Amendment considerations outweigh Bayside’s dubious intent in exposing MoneyBags’s identity.

But About That Fair Use Analysis!

Bayside alleged that “to the extent MoneyBags has any First Amendment interest in this case, it is wholly accounted for through copyright’s fair use analysis, which allows the public to use copyrighted works in certain circumstances without facing liability,” the court states. I’ll be honest and say that I have no idea what Bayside is driving at here, and perhaps it is naïve about the circuit in which it attempted this argument.

Nowhere does the fair use exception “wholly account” for the First Amendment interests of a defendant, but here, plaintiff invites a court in the Ninth Circuit to embark on a fair use analysis, which it should have declined in this instance. The court had already established a rationale for denying the subpoena and did not need to conduct a fair use consideration as though this were a case at the summary judgment phase with sufficient evidence presented. Nevertheless …

In response to Bayside, the court noted that it is bound by circuit precedent in Lenz, it calls fair use “colloquially an affirmative defense,” and then it states, “To make a prima facie case of copyright infringement for the purposes of obtaining a subpoena, then, a party must make a prima facie case that the infringing use did not constitute fair use.” And then, to add insult to speculation the court committed that chronic error in fair use factor one, writing …

… the use is transformative. Considered on their own, the copyrighted photos may have aesthetic value. But MoneyBags was not using the photos for their artistry. Rather, by placing the pictures in the context of comments about Sheth, MoneyBags gave the photos a new meaning—an expression of the author’s apparent distaste for the lifestyle and moral compass of one-percenters.

The court’s reasoning here is incorrect as a matter of law, especially without sufficient facts presented to consider the matter more fully. But based on that paragraph alone, the court errs when it opines that commentary about the subject(s) in a photograph is inherently “transformative” and, therefore, favors a finding of fair use. Such a generalized rule would excuse nearly any media company from licensing photographs simply because editors add captions and display images along with articles composed of text.

The court had not only found a basis to deny the subpoena, but it further stated that based on the record of plaintiff’s conduct that, “… even if Bayside had made a prima facie showing of copyright infringement, the Court would quash the subpoena in a heartbeat.” That being the key finding, it makes even less sense that the court engaged in a half-blind fair use analysis and added yet another poor example of “transformativeness” to that circuit-splitting tapestry of opinions.

Independent copyright owners, who truly make a living from creative work, have a hard time protecting their rights as it is. Misuse of copyright law by wealthy and powerful individuals is both offensive and unhelpful in that it gives the anti-copyright ideologues and policy wonks grist for their mill. They cite these stories under general headlines like “copyright is broken,” and then the internet does its thing. At the same time, it is also unhelpful to the vast majority of creators when courts are tempted into fair use discussions that are speculative to the point of whimsy.

[1] The lack of timely registration is a barrier to litigation for most copyright owners because it precludes statutory damages and attorney’s fees, but if money is no object, and the intent is to censor rather than protect copyright rights, then timely registration is moot.


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