The Copyright Office has adopted an interim regulation that alters the deposit exemption for works available only online. Previously, automated databases available only online were exempted from the mandatory deposit requirements. The exemption was implemented in 1989 because the Copyright Office “in the early 1990s had neither the intention nor the technology to collect such works.”
The Copyright Office has up until now interpreted the exemption to apply to all online-only publications because at the time the exemption was implemented, “for all practical purposes,” the only works being published online were the automated Westlaw and Nexis databases.
The new regulation
In the new regulation “electronic serials” (‘‘This class includes periodicals; newspapers; annuals; and the journals, proceedings, transactions, etc. of societies.’’) are subject to a qualified deposit requirement. Not all rights holders will be requested to deposit their works. The Copyright Office will make demands on authors, at its discretion. A rights holder will then have three months to deposit the work, barring the Office granting additional time in special circumstances.
The logistics for the submission of online–only works will be developed by the Office in consultation with content owners.The Office was not ready to adopt a policy where rights-holders could by provide a website link so that the Office could download the works itself. The effective date for the new reg is February 24, 2010. It only applies to works published on or after the effective date.
In comments, West publishing requested that the definition of serials be revised so that it could not be read to cover databases and blogs. The Office, in response, limited the definition of electronic serials to works “issued or intended to be issued on an established schedule, in successive parts bearing numerical or chronological designations, without subsequent alterations.’’ The Office noted it believed that this definition does not include blogs or databases that are publications with “no demarcations between particular, discrete issues of the publication.”
I’m not convinced the definition of electronic serials still doesn’t cover blogs. Many blogs, like mine, create posts that are automatically numbered by date or post number in the URL. Regardless, the Office’s comments imply that, at least for the time being, they are unlikely to make deposit demands upon blog owners.
Online distribution as publication
The deposit requirement enacted in 17 U.S.C. 402 only applies to works published in the United States. D.C. attorney Patrice Lyons queried whether the distribution of works only online constitutes a publication. Section 101 of title 17 defines ‘‘publication’’ as follows:
“Publication” is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display, constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication.To perform or display a work “publicly” means—(1) to perform or display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of afamily and its social acquaintances is gathered; or
(2) to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work to a place specified by clause (1) or to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.
It is possible to argue that the distribution of a work on the internet is not a publication because there is no “sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.”
In mid-October, we encountered this issue in Moberg v. 33T LLC, 2009 WL 3182606 (D. Del. 2009). In the case, a defendant moved to dismiss a copyright action brought by a Swedish photographer. The defendant argued that the work was a U.S. work because it was published online concurrently in the US and abroad. As a U.S. work, the defendant argued, the photographer needed to register the works at issue before bringing suit. The Court sidestepped the question of whether a publication had occurred and found that, regardless of whether there was a publication, there was not concurrent publication in the United States and a foreign country.
The Copyright Office in the regulation found that the distribution of a work on the internet constitutes a publication:
Because ‘‘[u]nder the definition in section 101, a work is ‘published’ if one or more copies or phonorecords embodying it are distributed to the public,’’ H.R. Rep. No. 96–1976, at 138 (1976), it follows that the electronic transmission of copies of a work to the public, as addressed in the distribution context in Tasini and Grokster, constitutes publication of that work.
So what does this mean?
Statutory damages are not available under 17 USC 412 for (1) the infringement of copyrights in unpublished works commenced before the effective date of its registration, or (2) any infringement of copyright commenced after first publication of theve found work and before the effective date of its registration, unless such registration is made within three months after the first publication of the work.
Authors of domestic works should be aware that, if Courts adopt the language in the regulation as guidance, they have a three month window to register after they place a work on the internet. In this window an author can still seek statutory damages and attorneys’ fees, even if infringement occurs before the effective date of the registration. If a court were to find that the distribution of an online-only work does not constitute a publication there is no window.
The language in the regulation raises the importance of the Moberg decision for works created outside of the United States and first published online. Previously a court could have found that not all works first published on the internet are U.S. works (due to concurrent publication in the US and abroad) because an online distribution does not constitute a publication. If court’s adopt the Office’s analysis, the only way a work first published online is not a U.S. work is if a tribunal adopts the policy-based findings in Moberg.