MGM v. Grokster – Amicus Brief of Professors Peter S. Menell, David Nimmer, Robert P. Merges, and Justin Hughes
39 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2019
Date Written: January 24, 2005
This case turns on whether the Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Sony conclusively resolves at the summary judgment stage the present dispute – involving strikingly different technology that was unimaginable at the time that the Sony case was decided. Although some of the language used in the Sony decision – stating that providers of technology that is capable of substantial noninfringing uses cannot be subject to contributory infringement liability – appears to predetermine the outcome of this matter, such a far-reaching, prospective rule goes well beyond the language or intent of the Copyright Act and misconstrues the proper judicial function in copyright adjudication. Over the course of nearly two centuries, courts have evolved, with tacit legislative consent, a rich infringement jurisprudence that balances a range of considerations on a case-by-case basis. This jurisprudence has long recognized indirect as well as direct infringement. In its comprehensive reform and codification of copyright law in the 1976 Copyright Act, Congress purposefully reaffirmed the continued applicability and evolution of this jurisprudence. At the same time, Congress established various express immunities, compulsory licenses, and other categorical limitations on liability. It would be incongruous, therefore, for courts to read additional categorical immunities into the Copyright Act’s liability regime. Congress has since added numerous other limitations to copyright liability, none of which bar a finding of infringement in the present case. Several amendments prohibit trafficking of particular classes of technology capable of substantial non-infringing uses.
The Sony Court derived its “staple article of commerce” standard by analogizing to the Patent Act. Transplanting such a rule from the Patent Act, however, misapprehends critical differences between the two legal regimes. Whereas patent law seeks to promote technological innovation and evolved a staple article of commerce doctrine primarily out of concern for unduly expanding patent scope, copyright law seeks to promote cultural and social progress, manifesting a more cautious stance toward technological dissemination, particularly where a technology threatens widespread piracy of expressive works. Furthermore, amendments to the Copyright Act since the Sony decision demonstrate that Congress does not believe that dual-use technology – i.e., technology that is capable of both infringing and substantial non-infringing uses – should be treated as inviolate under copyright law. Rather, Congress has shown that it sees a need to balance the efficacy of the copyright system for promoting creative expression against social interests in technological innovation and consumer autonomy.
Consequently, this Court should clarify that indirect copyright infringement liability requires a balancing of factors based on the protection of copyright owners’ rights and other recognized interests and concerns undergirding copyright law. Adverse effects of potential liability on incentives to innovate can and should be considered in such a balance, but no judicially established safe harbors should be recognized or imposed. Any such prospective, categorical safe harbors are properly within the exclusive power of Congress. Until such time as Congress establishes a staple article of commerce immunity to copyright liability, courts should continue to evolve balanced infringement standards that respond to new technologies guided by the text, structure, and purposes of copyright law.
For the present case this means that the Ninth Circuit’s decision to affirm summary judgment dismissing the plaintiffs’ cause of action should be overturned and the case remanded for a full trial applying an appropriate balancing test. This Court should clarify that copyright liability extends to acts inducing copyright infringement and that contributory and vicarious liability should be judged on the basis of traditional criteria, including considerations of causation, knowledge, and intent. Given the policies animating copyright law, the standard for indirect liability should balance the harm to copyright owners against adverse effects on consumers from the loss of non-infringing uses from dual-use technologies. Such a balance should consider the full range of factors, including the relative magnitudes (present and foreseeable) of infringing and non-infringing use, the degree of control exercised by manufacturers and distributors of means for reproducing and distributing works of authorship, the intent of such enterprises, the extent to which noninfringing uses can be continued without the technologies at issue, and the extent to which copyright owners can limit unauthorized uses of their works (without undue expense or loss of market). Such an approach would continue the judiciary’s vital role as a flexible and responsive institution for addressing evolving challenges to the copyright system. Until such time as Congress expressly enacts a safe harbor in the Copyright Act analogous to patent law’s staple article of commerce doctrine, the distributor of technology that is merely capable of substantial non-infringing uses (but is in fact used predominantly to facilitate massive infringement) should not be categorically immune from copyright liability.
Keywords: copyright, indirect liability, Sony, Grokster, statutory interpretation, file-sharing
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