A blog about patent, copyright and trademark law in the U.S. District Court
for the Southern District of New York

Court Awards Summary Judgment of Copyright Infringement Over Publication of E-Book

In a March 14, 2014 ruling, Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald granted summary judgment to plaintiff HarperCollins Publishers LLC in its copyright infringement action against Open Road Integrated Media, LLP over the children’s book Julie of the Wolves. The book was first published in 1972, and Open Road published an e-book version in 2011. The central issue in dispute was whether the original 1971 contract between HarperCollins and the author conveyed the rights to publish e-books.

Judge Rice began the analysis by noting that to “maintain an action for copyright infringement, plaintiff must establish two elements: ‘(1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are in the original.’” The Court further wrote that in this case “the parties dispute only the first element – that is, whether HarperCollins’ uncontested publication rights to Julie of the Wolves encompass the exclusive right to publish and license e-book versions of this work,” and concluded that copyright “infringement actions such as this ‘involving only the scope of the alleged infringer’s license present the court with a question that essentially is one of contract: whether the parties’ license agreement encompasses the [relevant] activities.’”

Judge Rice then engaged in a lengthy analysis of the contract between HarperCollins and the author under New York contract principles, and held that “by its language, the contract grants to HarperCollins the exclusive right to license electronic publications, a right which was infringed by Open Road in its unlicensed e-book publication of Julie of the Wolves.” The Court cautioned, however, that the case turned on “antiquated” language in a forty year old contract, so the holding in this case might have limited applicability.
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