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A Foreign Broadcaster Held Liable For Violating the Copyright Act

For this week’s blog post, we will be discussing a recently decided copyright law case, in which a foreign broadcaster was held liable for violating the Copyright Act when they allowed United States users to access copyrighted material through a video-on-demand website.  The specific case is Spanski Enterprises, Inc. v. Telewizja Polska, which was decided on appeal by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

In this case, Spanski, who is a foreign broadcaster, uploaded copyrighted television episodes to its website, and then projected the episodes onto computer screens in the United States for visitors to view.  The court held that in doing this, Spanski was in violation of the Copyright Act.

Taking a step back, we will briefly discuss what makes a work copyrightable.  In order for a work of authorship to be copyrightable, the work must: (1) be fixed in a tangible medium of expression; (2) be original and not a derivative work; and (3) display some level of creativity (i.e., typically just slightly more than a trivial amount).

The television episodes at issue in this case qualify for copyright protection because they fulfill the requirements.  First, the episodes were recorded and fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  A digital copy of a work, as was at issue here, can qualify for protection as long as it is capable of being viewed for more than a transitory duration.  Because the works were full length episodes watched by visitors, they were viewed for more than a transitory period.  Second, the episodes met the originality requirement, because they were not based off another show or taken from a previously copyrighted work.  Third, the episodes at issue met the creativity requirement, as the Copyright Office propounds that works are “creative” so long as more than a mere trivial amount of creativity is shown.  Seeing as the requisite elements for a valid copyright were met in this case, Spanski filed suit under the Copyright Act.

The court found Polska liable for infringing Spanski’s copyrighted works by transmitting into the US via a video-on-demand website fifty-one episodes of Spanski’s copyrighted television programs.  The court held that even though the foreign broadcaster was not located in the United States, by transmitting the episodes illegally into the United States, they were liable for domestic copyright infringement. This notable decision extends the “long arm” extraterritorial application of the Copyright Act.

The court awarded damages of over $3 million, or $60,000 per episode, to Spanski TV.  The court of appeals for the DC Circuit affirmed this decision, and upheld an award of approximately $900,000 in attorneys’ fees, as permitted by section 505 of the Copyright Act.  Section 505 permits plaintiffs who bring a successful copyright violation suit to be awarded attorney’s fees from the opposing party.  This statutory award of attorneys’ fees is one of the major benefits of registering a copyrightable work with the Copyright Office.

In assessing the significant sum of attorneys’ fees awarded, the court noted that Polska’s transmission of the episodes was a willful copyright infringement.  Polska had knowledge of the copyright and continued to transmit the TV episodes in violation of Spanski’s rights.  Polska also committed “egregious litigation misconduct” during the case by intentionally manipulating evidence submitted to the court.  During litigation, Polska removed the infringing episodes from its video-on-demand website, and claimed that any broadcast that had occurred was by accident due to technological errors.  These claims were false, and opposing counsel made this known to the court.

Overall, the case is an interesting application of copyright law to an occurrence that seems to be more and more prevalent in today’s episode-on-demand internet platform.  The case signifies the U.S. courts’ ability to hold violators of the Copyright Act liable even if those violators are located outside of the United States.

At our law firm, we assist clients with legal issues related to copyright, e-commerce, data privacy, and technology.  Please contact us to set up an initial consultation.