United States: Contributory Copyright Infringement Liability Avoided In Tarantino v. Gawker Media, LLC

If an online news-blog provides a hyperlink to—but does not itself post—a leaked script, could the blog be liable for contributory copyright infringement? Not necessarily, according to a recent opinion by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

In Tarantino v. Gawker Media, LLC, Oscar-winning writer and director Quentin Tarantino brought suit against ten unidentified individuals claiming copyright infringement of his screenplay The Hateful Eight, and against Gawker Media Group alleging contributory copyright infringement. The dispute started in January 2014 when Tarantino discovered the screenplay he intended to produce had been leaked to the public. After Tarantino revealed in an interview that the production would be canceled, and that he suspected six individuals who had copies of the screenplay of leaking it, Gawker picked up the story. Shortly after Gawker published its story, another website, The Wrap, disclosed plot points from The Hateful Eight script and reported about a link to the script. The same day, a copy of the script was posted on AnonFiles.com and Scribd.com, both file sharing websites. As a follow-up to its original story, Gawker reported that "a document that appear[ed] to be the script ha[d] been made public online." The Gawker article included hyperlinks to the script on AnonFiles.com and Scribd.com. On January 27, 2014, Tarantino brought suit, claiming that Gawker was liable for contributory copyright infringement on the basis that its story about the script linked to the allegedly unauthorized copies posted on AnonFiles.com and Scribd.com. Gawker responded with a motion to dismiss the complaint.

Siding with Gawker, the District Court dismissed Tarantino's complaint, holding that Tarantino failed to allege a cognizable claim of contributory infringement. Specifically, the court held that Tarantino did not sufficiently allege facts to support the elements of a contributory infringement claim under Ninth Circuit law. To allege a claim for contributory infringement, the Ninth Circuit requires that the defendant must have 1) known of the direct infringement; and, 2) either "induced, caused or materially contributed to the infringing conduct." The court held that Tarantino did not allege a "single act" of direct infringement because he did not identify a particular individual who, for example, created unauthorized copies of the screenplay. Rather, the complaint merely speculated that some direct infringement must have taken place. Moreover, the court found that Tarantino did not allege sufficient facts to show that Gawker "caused, induced, or materially contributed" to the alleged infringement.

The district court gave Tarantino the opportunity to amend his complaint, and on May 1, 2014 he did, alleging that Gawker itself illegally downloaded a copy of the screenplay and distributed copies. However, just six days later the writer/director voluntarily dismissed the entire action, without prejudice, thus ending the dispute . . . at least for now.

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