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Copyright Law Preempting Contractual Terms of Use

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by Dennis Crouch

The pending Supreme Court petition in ML Genius v. Google focuses on an important issue of copyright preemption.

The basic setup: Genius.com has lots of song lyrics, most of which were  posted by fans (i.e., “crowdsourced”). LyricFind scraped the data and then sold it to Google.  With the data in hand, Google now displays the lyrics in the search results rather than directing traffic to Genius.  Genius sued.

Contract not Copyright: Genius does not hold the copyright to the lyrics and so has no copyright infringement claim.  But, Genius does require its users to agree to an extensive contractual agreement that includes a promise that the user will not commercially reproduce, copy, or distribute any portion of the Genius service.  At some point, Genius began to suspect that Google was using the lyrics from its service and set-up some test cases that proved their suspicion.

After some back-and-forth, Genius eventually sued Google in New York state court, alleging that

Google LLC and LyricFind have been caught red-handed misappropriating content from Genius’s website, which they have exploited–and continue to exploit–for their own financial benefit and to Genius’s financial detriment.

Original NY Complaint.  The complaint asserts breach of contract based upon violation of its terms of service; unfair competition (based upon state law); and unjust enrichment.   Google removed the case to Federal Court and then sought dismissal of the case–arguing that all claims asserted in the case are preempted by Section 301(a) of the Copyright Act.

(a) … all legal or equitable rights that are equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright as specified by section 106 in works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression and come within the subject matter of copyright as specified by sections 102 and 103 … are governed exclusively by this title. Thereafter, no person is entitled to any such right or equivalent right in any such work under the common law or statutes of any State.

17 U.S.C. § 301(a).  The district court found the claims preempted. Genius Media Group Inc. v. Google LLC, 19-CV-7279 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 10, 2020). On appeal, Genius focused only on the contract claim, but the Second Circuit still affirmed–holding that the copyright act preempts state law contract claims. ML Genius Holdings LLC v. Google LLC, 20-3113, — F.4th — (2d Cir. Mar. 10, 2022).  Now Genius has brought its case to the US Supreme Court with the following question:

Does the Copyright Act’s preemption clause allow a business to invoke traditional state-law contract remedies to enforce a promise not to copy and use its content?

Petition for Cert.

The case ties in directly to lots of academic work on the topic.  Judge Easterbrook’s 1996 decision in ProCD v. Zeidenberg, 86 F.3d 1447 (7th Cir. 1996) was a flashpoint with its holding that contractual restrictions on the use of information was not  so preempted.  The ProCD approach has been adopted by a number of circuits, but not the Second Circuit.  Prior to its decision in this case, the Second Circuit appears to have not stated any clear precedent on the topic:

Considering the prominence of the S.D.N.Y. and how often and yet inconsistently it has ruled on the issue, it is truly remarkable that the Second Circuit has not yet delivered a binding precedent on this issue.

Guy A. Rub, Copyright Survives: Rethinking the Copyright-Contract Conflict, 103 Va. L. Rev. 1141, 1181 (2017).

The Genius brief was filed by Joshua Rosenkranz (Orrick) along with Christopher Cariello, Jennifer Keighley, Lauren Weber, and Emily Villano.  Briefs from Google and LyricFind are due September 8, 2022.

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