Case in point is Techdirt's post on a July 3 ruling in Viacom v. YouTube [see clarification below], headlined "Judge Tosses Out Foreign YouTube Lawsuits; Points Out Basic Copyright Law," with the snarky I-know-so-much-more-than-the-lawyers-in-this-case subhed "from the you-would-think-their-lawyers-would-notice-this dept." But virtually everything in the Techdirt post, from the headline to the last sentence, is factually and legally incorrect.
First, here's what actually happened:
Among the plaintiffs in the massive Viacom v. YouTube copyright suit are a number of foreign copyright owners, including most prominently the English Premier League soccer association. The motion on which Judge Louis Stanton just ruled concerned a narrow issue: the type of damages such owners of non-US works may recover should YouTube actually be held liable for copyright infringement. Judge Stanton's order made three separate and distinct rulings:
1) Owners of foreign works not registered in the US generally cannot recover statutory damages;Number 2 is an extremely obscure issue I'm not going to delve into, and Number 3 is a relatively straightforward application of case law. Instead I'll focus on #1, which is really tricky and interesting. First, a bit of background is necessary to understand what happened here. To sue for copyright infringement, it is generally necessary to first register the work with the US Copyright office. But this requirement applies only to "United States work[s]" -- not to foreign works. 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) (emphasis added). In other words, to sue in the US on the infringement of a foreign work, it is not necessary to register that work with the US Copyright Office. Separately, in order to seek statutory damages, the work must have been registered prior to infringement, or within three months of publication. Id. § 412.
2) Certain broadcasts of live foreign events are eligible for statutory damages if the copyright owner jumps through some technical hoops; and
3) Punitive damages are not available for copyright infringement.
So the question for the court was this: Should owners of foreign works, who (unlike owners of US works) do not even have to register their works prior to suit, see id. § 411(a), nonetheless have to register their works if they elect to seek statutory damages, see id. § 412? I don't think the answer is obvious, and Judge Stanton didn't either; he engaged in a lengthy analysis of the statute, its legislative history, the case law, the Berne Convention, and TRIPs, before ultimately concluding that Section 412's registration requirement does apply to foreign works, even though Section 411's doesn't. (I'd have to spend many hours wading through all of this before I even decided whether I agree with his determination.)
So what's the impact of all this? Judge Stanton's opinion has no effect at all on any plaintiffs' substantive claims for liability. It simply means that the owners of foreign works will have to seek actual, as opposed to statutory, damages. Prof. Eric Goldman says he "think[s] most works will have zero actual damages from YouTube infringements." I disagree. Why can't the court award damages equal to the license fee YouTube would have had to pay to broadcast the work had it sought one? But, bigger picture, damages aren't the most significant part of this case; what truly matters is whether YouTube qualifies for the DMCA Section 512(c) safe harbor. And also, keep in mind that this opinion affects only foreign works; it has no impact whatsoever on the many thousands of US works at issue (including those owned by the lead plaintiff, Viacom.)
So what did Techdirt get wrong? Nearly everything. Really. Let's take a look:
Judge Tosses Out Foreign YouTube Lawsuits; Points Out Basic Copyright LawWrong. Judge Stanton didn't "toss out [any] lawsuits"; he merely ruled on what type of damages are available for the foreign plaintiffs. And he didn't "[p]oint Out Basic Copyright Law"; he made a ruling on a very tricky and obscure area that I suspect all but a tiny fraction of experienced copyright lawyers have never even encountered.
[T]here are some basics that are rather simple and straightforward: such as that you cannot sue if you haven't registered your copyrights with the US copyright office.False, as to foreign copyrights, which are the only copyrights relevant to the motion Techdirt is discussing. As explained above, Section 411(a)'s pre-lawsuit registration requirement applies only to "United States work[s]."
So, when the Premiere Football League sued Google/YouTube for hosting some videos of matches two years ago, I assumed at the very least that it had registered its copyrights in the US.One would assume this only if one hadn't read Section 411(a)'s registration requirement, which, again, does not apply to foreign works.
A judge has tossed out the Premier League's claim along with some other foreign claimants' for not being covered by US copyright law.False, or, at best, highly misleading. The court did not "toss out" any substantive claims for relief. The decision merely said that owners of foreign works cannot obtain statutory (or punitive) damages. And the opinion doesn't address whether works are "covered by US copyright law"; it merely determines what type of damages are available. The Premiere League and other foreign plaintiffs are still fully part of this lawsuit.
You would have thought this was something the Premier League's lawyers would have noticed before filing the lawsuit.This has nothing to do with what the lawyers "noticed." As I explained, and as Judge Stanton's opinion makes clear, this is a very obscure issue; Professor Goldman (accurately) describes it as "a pretty technical ruling interpreting some arcane aspects of copyright law." I don't know what was in the attorneys' minds before they filed this suit, but I think it's likely that they were well aware that the availability of statutory damages would be a contested issue, and decided to make their best case for them, knowing that there was no guarantee of success, and also knowing that losing on that issue would not be the end of the world. In other words, it's exactly what good lawyers do every day.
Bottom line: if you want an accurate account of a court opinion, read it yourself, or at least read an account by someone who can accurately describe both it, and the relevant law.
[Clarification: Viacom's and The Premier League's lawsuits are technically separate cases, though they have been consolidated for purposes of discovery. As I explained, this order only affects the foreign copyrights at issue in the Premier League suit.]
UPDATE: Techdirt has altered its post (without acknowledging precisely how) and says, "we're updating some of the points in the post to clarify." This is deeply dishonest. The Techdirt post doesn't need an "update" or "clarif[ication]." It needs multiple plain, old-fashioned corrections. And even with its "update," it still contains numerous errors, starting with the headline, and continuing through virtually every sentence of the post.
UPDATE II: Techdirt has now stricken through all of the substance of the post, tacitly (though not explicitly) acknowledging that both its original and "update[d]" or "clarif[ied]" posts were thoroughly inaccurate (though its headline and subhed remains so). It then adds:
After discussing this with a few different lawyers (as per usual -- none of them agree with each other!) it seemed best to just point people to Eric's analysis of this decision. Once again, this is what's great about using this blog as a conversation, helping us all to learn. Thanks to everyone who chimed in and contributed (whether via comments or email).What a bunch of disingenous nonsense. Techdirt's numerous errors were not something about which reasonable lawyers would disagree. They were blatant misstatements about what the case actually said. And the cheery "this is what's great about using this blog as a conversation, helping us all to learn" is absurd in this context. Anyone who writes for the public, whether they call themselves journalists or bloggers or whatever, has a basic obligation to get his facts right. On matters of fact, it's not good enough to throw something out there, and, hey, if it's wrong, hopefully someone will tell me later. Yes, everyone makes mistakes (and I certainly don't exempt myself), but the presence of a comments section and an email address does not obviate the obligation to make best efforts at getting things right before hitting "publish."