Garcia v. Google, Inc.

Garcia v. Google, Inc.

“While answering a casting call for a low-budget amateur film doesn’t often lead to stardom, it also rarely turns an aspiring actress into the subject of a fatwa.” is the mild understatement of the Appeals court decision in Garcia v. Google, a case rooted in the anti-Islamic “film” that sparked riots in the middle east a few years back. Ms. Garcia was one of the unfortunate soles who was originally hired to act in what seemed like a vanity project of Mark Basseley Youssef. The film project was originally entitled “Desert Warrior” and while it is not clear what it was originally about, what is known is that the footage was reedited and dubbed over with new dialogue. The resulting project was entitled “Innocence of Muslims,” and the reaction to it is thought to have resulted in over 50 deaths.

Following the riots and subsequent calls for her death, Ms. Garcia filed eight DMCA take down notices with Google claiming infringement of her copyright. The trial court ended up denying Ms. Garcia’s request for relief on the basis that it did not believe she had any copyright interest in the film to base her claims on. The Appeals Court however did find that Ms. Garcia she retained some degree of copyright based on her acting and perhaps more notably that her contribution was not a work made for hire, as she was not an employee, nor was there a written work-made-for-hire agreement, but rather was provided to Basseley as an implied license – a license that was exceeded when the performance was severely chopped-up, redubbed, and placed into a new context.

The three take aways from the opinion are the facts that the Court made a great deal about the amateur status of the filmmaker preventing the Court from viewing the relationship between actor and company as one of an employer/employee – this conclusion highlights the importance of getting a written work-for-hire agreement in place especially in more personal and vanity productions. Additionally, the opinion demonstrates that while an implied license may be given much leeway, there is a limit as to how distorted a project can be from the original intent. Finally, citing Stanislavski and Sanford Meisner, the Court noted that an actor’s contribution to a performances not merely a reflection of the written page (Otherwise, “every shmuck . . . is an actor because everyone . . . knows how to read.” Sanford Meisner & Dennis Longwell, Sanford Meisner on Acting 178 (1987).), but is also of sufficient originality to establish authorship.

Top 10 Lists

Trademark top tensI was recently asked by an attorney friend about using the phrase “The Top Ten Reasons…” in relation to a top ten list (á la David Letterman) that she was planning on using in a marketing piece.  This wasn’t a comic work meant to mimic the David Letterman version, but rather a serious piece meant to provide useful information regarding estate planning strategies.  So the question to me was whether she could use the “Top Ten List” format without running afoul of Letterman’s intellectual property.

My response was that there was a very low probability of risk – the term “Top Ten List” is descriptive and therefore not generally protected by trademark unless it has acquired such distinctiveness that the term is pretty much only associated by one source.  While, in certain contexts it is undoubtedly a very famous list, it is hardly the only place in which you can find people putting together lists of things in quantities of 10.

Further, there would need to be a showing that her use was so similar, that consumers were likely to be confused as to the source – i.e. people looking to enjoy a late night comedy show routine, were somehow distracted by her “Top Ten Reasons” and were confused as to the source of the information thinking it came from David Letterman. While it’s always important to make sure that you aren’t infringing other’s IP rights, it’s equally important to not let the use of descriptive terms by others prevent you from describing your own goods and services and sharing what you have with the world.

Sometimes They Don’t Quite Get It.

Courts sometime get the right answer for the wrong reason. In a recent case in the US Tenth Circuit (Enterprise Management Limited, Inc. v. Warrick); the court discussed a diagram of a basic idea which was the basis of the defendant copying a similar diagram to explain the same concepts.    While the end result was correct in this circumstance, the reasoning used falls short.

Where concepts or ideas are being presented there is a general rule that expression and ideas are sometimes merged and therefore the copying is allowed to not allow the copyright owner to weld exclusive rights to the idea.   The Enterprise Management court articulated this by noting:

“In short, the copyright law is not a patent law: it protects the expression of ideas rather than the underlying ideas themselves. Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 344-45 (1991) (“The most fundamental axiom of copyright law is that no author may copyright his ideas or the facts he narrates.”) (quotations omitted). And, when a work expresses an idea in the only way it can be expressed, courts deny those expressions protection under the “merger doctrine” to avoid giving the author a monopoly over the underlying idea. See Gates Rubber Co. v. Bando Chem. Indus., 9 F.3d 823, 838 (10th Cir. 1993). Conversely, when an idea is capable of many different “modes of expression,” the expression of the idea is eligible for copyright protection. Apple Computer, Inc. v. Franklin Computer Corp., 714 F.2d 1240, 1253 (3d Cir. 1983).5”

Infringing Diagram

Original Diagram

The court analyzed a fairly basic diagram similar to what we have all seen on countless Power Point slide, comprising a series of rectangles.  Although the original was no longer in use, but a modified version using different shapes, the court held, correctly, that the diagram is protected by copyright.   The real issue in my mind is to what degree that protection extends – with a diagram based on common shapes, typefaces, and general structure the strength of the copyright protection is limited, as the protection is limited by the limited methods in which to express the idea.  The diagrams are virtually identical, excepting for the border around the title page.  While that the court was correct in its’ holding, the court seemed to indicate it would find the same even of the diagram had included a significant deviations to the aesthetic elements, instead basing the similarities on the use of boxes and other common design elements and implying the only acceptable method of circumventing this thin copyright was to use an entirely different diagramming method in affect allowing the copyright holder to lay claim to entire concepts based on the charting tool used.   Using the court’s analysis, parties wishing to lay broad claims to concepts and ideas could circumvent the merger doctrine, by going into any basic diagramming program, entering in the data and allowing the program to kick out different charts.