The idiom “no good deed goes unpunished” has never felt truer. Lately, it seems that libraries and universities have made more hash marks on their legal scorecard in the lose column than they have in the win column. In this past year, the Second Circuit undermined the first sale doctrine rights of libraries, a federal court held a trial in Georgia that could determine the bounds of fair use with respect to electronic course reserves, and several authors groups have now filed a lawsuit against Hathi Trust and others engaged in the preservation of orphan works. However, a small victory came in a California federal court this week in the case against UCLA for its video streaming practices.
Last December, the Association of Information Media Equipment (AIME) filed suit against several UCLA officials and employees, including members of library and media lab staff, for copyright infringement after UCLA digitized and streamed DVDs produced by Ambrose Video. AIME asserted it had standing to file this action as an association representing its members, which includes Ambrose Video. In granting the UCLA officials’ motion to dismiss, the court disagreed. Because AIME is not the holder of any of the copyrights at issue in the case, it lacked standing to bring the action. “Having the rights over a copyright is essential to establishing a copyright infringement claim” the court stated in its order; thus, participation of an individual member who was also owner of one of the copyrighted films at issue in the suit, was required. Additionally, the court determined that the UCLA Regents and other officials were immune, under the 11th Amendment, from suit in their official capacities (although not necessarily in their individual capacities, the court pointed out). These two grounds for dismissal could similarly prove fatal for the recently filed action against Hathi Trust and several state universities. It will be interesting to see if the inclusion of a couple individually named authors (and presumably copyright holders), who are also members of the named author associations, will save that action on the question of standing.
The remainder of the ruling on the motion to dismiss concerned more substantive issues; although by no means was there any legally determinative interpretation of fair use or other elements of copyright law. Hence, why the victory here is a small one. For me, the most curious point of this section of the ruling was the court’s characterization of the license to publicly perform the copyrighted work. The court held, although without much discussion or justification in the existing body of law, that the copying of the DVD onto the UCLA server for streaming was that kind of “incidental copying” permitted by fair use. That is, in order to make use of its license to publicly perform the film, UCLA had to place the content onto its network. Although I have not seen the full text of the license entered into between UCLA and Ambrose, I have, in my time as a collection development director, read, negotiated, and executed many a public performance and streaming license. In nearly all the ones I have encountered, the streaming of a film is treated as a separate license from the one to publicly perform a film. In fact, some public performance licenses (whether it be a separate document included with the DVD purchase or a click through on the online shopping cart when purchasing a DVD) expressly exclude streaming for remote access or distance learning. Further, if the viewing of the streamed copy is done by a student in the privacy of his own home or dorm room and not by a class in a group setting, is this really a “public” performance? As such, I would caution libraries and universities from relying too heavily upon this court’s interpretation of public performance and instead turn to the language of the institution’s own agreement.
For UCLA, the ruling is certainly a victory. AIME has until the 17th of October to refile the case, and I predict that unless they have an individual copyright holder to join in the matter as well as substantial evidence to make a case against the named defendants in their individual capacities such a refiling will not occur. For the rest of us who have been sitting patiently waiting for a ruling in this matter, the case is neither a victory nor a loss, for there still remains unanswered questions regarding the fair use of streamed media in distance education.