Viewing Pirated Material Is Not Direct Copyright Infringement, Judge Tells Tarantino

Gawker has booked an early victory in its copyright battle with Quentin Tarantino over a leaked movie script. In a ruling handed down yesterday, a federal judge said that in the absence of evidence showing direct copyright infringement by others, claims that Gawker was guilty of contributory copyright infringement could not progress.

Back in January, Quentin Tarantino discovered that a copy of an unreleased screenplay to potential future movie The Hateful Eight had been made available to the public without his permission. He’d shared the document with six individuals and either one of them – or someone linked to them – had leaked it.

Shortly after dozens of news articles appeared online, news site Gawker reported that following a “temper tantrum” Tarantino had decided that he would no longer make a Hateful Eight movie. The next day The Wrap reported it had obtained a copy of the script and within hours it was being made available by the AnonFiles.com file-hosting site. From there it appeared on Scribd.com, viewable to millions of visitors.

But while people would have to find the script themselves if they were interested, Gawker later made the process significantly easier by publishing an article titled “Here is the Leaked Quentin Tarantino Hateful Eight Script” containing links to both AnonFiles and Scribd. Gawker refused to take down the links when asked, although both AnonFiles and Scribd both removed the file.

Through his legal team an enraged Tarantino accused Gawker of encouraging copyright infringement, but Gawker fought back saying that in the course of its reporting the links were protected under “fair use” doctrine. On January 27, Tarantino’s lawyers filed a complaint alleging copyright infringement against 10 ‘Doe’ defendants and contributory copyright infringement against Gawker.

Yesterday, however, the lawsuit received a substantial setback.

In order for a defendant to be found liable for contributory copyright infringement there must first be evidence of direct infringement carried out by others. In other words, to proceed against Gawker, Tarantino’s lawyers needed to show that visitors to Gawker’s site who read the article in question actually clicked the links to AnonFiles or Scribd and went on to commit direct infringement on the script.

“However, nowhere in these paragraphs or anywhere else in the Complaint does Plaintiff allege a single act of direct infringement committed by any member of the general public that would support Plaintiff’s claim for contributory infringement. Instead, Plaintiff merely speculates that some direct infringement must have taken place,” wrote U.S. District Judge John F. Walter in his ruling.

Adding more problems for Tarantino, the Judge said that even if there were allegations that individuals had accessed the links in the Gawker article in order to read the script, that would still not support Tarantino’s claim for contributory infringement. Citing a previous case involving adult magazine publisher Perfect 10, Judge Walter said that simply viewing the script would not be enough.

“Even if Plaintiff alleged that individuals accessed the links contained in Defendant’s article in order to read Plaintiff’s script, such an allegation would still not support Plaintiff’s contributory infringement claim against Defendant. Simply viewing a copy of allegedly infringing work on one’s own computer does not constitute the direct infringement necessary to support Plaintiff’s contributory infringement claim,” the Judge wrote.

“In addition, based on the allegations of the Complaint, there can be little doubt that Plaintiff has a strong claim for direct infringement against Doe 1, a/k/a AnonFiles.com. However, Plaintiff has not alleged and it is highly unlikely that Plaintiff will be able to plead facts demonstrating that Defendant somehow induced, caused, or materially contributed to the infringing conduct by publishing a link to the screenplay after it was wrongfully posted on AnonFiles.com.”

In light of the above, Gawker’s ‘fair use’ defense was not addressed.

“The Court concludes that the fair use arguments, albeit persuasive and potentially dispositive, are premature and the Court declines to consider those arguments until Plaintiff has had an opportunity to demonstrate that he can state a viable claim for contributory copyright infringement,” the decision reads.

While round one goes to Gawker, Tarantino’s legal team now has until May 1 to submit its amended complaint and stage a comeback.

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