Jerome Frank (Second Circuit 1941-1957), an echt Legal Realist (see Brian Leiter, "Legal Realism and Positivism Reconsidered," 111 Ethics 278 (2001)), is reputed to have remarked that a court's decision might turn on what the judge had for breakfast. This led litigants to have a generous morning repast waiting for him at the Plaza Hotel. Eventually, Judge Frank ballooned to 450 pounds and burst like the Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man in the movie Ghostbusters. Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit, while a bon vivant, is nevertheless more careful about breakfast, as he detailed in his March 19,1993 speeech, "What I Ate for Breakfast and other Mysteries of Judicial Decision Making," available here.
All this is by way of background to wondering what a panel of the 4th Circuit had for breakfast when it decided, yesterday, Christopher Phelps and Associates, LLC v. Galloway; whatever it is was, I earnestly pray it is never served again. (HT to LKB for letting me know about the opinion).
The case, while possessed of some factual interest, is, in its legal essence, simple: an individual (Galloway) had an unauthorized copy of architectural plans made and then built a house based on them. The building design firm plaintiff sued for infringement. There was a jury trial; the jury awarded plaintiff its lost fees for use of the plans ($20,0000). The trial court denied plaintiff's motion for a new trial on damages and refused to order an injunction barring the future lease or sale of the house or mandating destruction or return of the infringing plans. Since there was no registration for the architectural plans, the lost fee award can be justified only as a value of use award for infringement of an architectural work.
But, alas, the Fourth Circuit issued a 22-page opinion. The opinion is a maddening mixture of getting some things right and some things very very wrong. The court's holding on how the first sale doctrine works applies across all subject matter, and bears no resemblance to how copyright law has worked since its inception centuries ago. Let's work through the issues methodically, though, since there is error built on error, which must be peeled back.
The first error, and it is a common one, is in fixing the proper measure of damages for infringement of architectural plans. Architectural plans have been protected since the 1909 Act; architectural works only since 1990. Because of their historically different roots, great care should be taken to ensure that the proper remedies are awarded for the particular type of work sued upon. This is more of a problem than one would think, given the failure of many plaintiffs to obtain a registration for both types of work, even if that party is the creator and owner of both. Copyright Office regulations are crystal clear that two separate registrations are required, one for the architectural plans and one for the architectural work. If plaintiff has failed to obtain both registrations, the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction of the work for which registration has not been obtained and obviously has no power to award any relief for such a work.
In the typical case, plaintiffs obtain a registration for architectural plans, but not for the architectural work, and yet attempt to claim remedies for infringement of the architectural work, that is, they seek defendant’s profits from sale of infringing houses. Such claims must be rejected. Assuming there are proper registrations for both types of works, what are the available monetary remedies? For architectural plans, a common measure is the fee the architect or building designer charges for use of his or her plans. One may never obtain damages for infringement of architectural plans measured by profits made from sale of infringing homes; such damages are proper only for infringement of architectural works, although courts with a disturbing regularity overlook this critical distinction. For infringement of architectural works, a common remedy is either the profit plaintiff would have made but for the infringement from sale of the house, or the profits defendant made from the same sale. In the case of the profits plaintiff would have made, one might ask why isn't this the fee the architect would have charged? This would, of course, justify the jury's award under a different theory.
In the Christopher Phelps case, plaintiff only sued on (I believe) infringement of the architectural work. The only remedies the jury could award, therefore, was damages from violation of the architectural work copyright. In an ordinary case, looking at defendant's profits, this would be calculated by the profit the builder made from selling the house(s), reduced by expenses and things like the value of the land, the location, and many other features, like the comps in the neighborhood. For plaintiff's losses, it seems a stretch to claim plaintiff suffered losses calculated by the value of the house: if authorized plaintiff's don't charge that way. Rather they charge either a flat fee for use of the plans or a percentage of the construction costs (in the case of skyscrapers, this is no small amount). In Phelps, though, defendant didn't sell the house: it was his dream house, which he built and still lives in. I don't disagree that in such circumstances, it might be possible to award the fair market value of the infringing house, apportioned by non-infringing elements of the design, and deducting for other non-infringing things like the construction costs, the value of the land, the value of the location etc. This may be a speculative task, although not impossible. More straightforward, however, is the fee the architect would have charged if authorized, in Phelps, $20,000.
On to injunctions. The court of appeals, citing eBay, rejected the argument (if it was made), that plaintiff was entitled to a permanent injunction since it prevailed on the merits. Since it was very unlikely defendant (an individual building his "dream" house) would do anything else with the plans, an injunction was unnecessary, although plaintiff was entitled to get the infringing copy back (on this point, the court of appeal remanded and hopefully the district court will order return of the copy, although for reasons given at the end of this posting, I don't see how it can). Plaintiff, though, asked for an injunction against defendant leasing or selling the house. The argument was based on the radical view that there can be a distribution of a house within the meaning of the Copyright Act merely by selling it. I disagree: there can only be a distribution by physical transfer of the copy, not by transfer of the title to the copy. In the case of an architectural work, that means selling it and moving it to a different location.
The Section 106(3) right is: "to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending." There is no definition of "distribution" but one thing is clear: the operative terms are not, as plaintiff asserts, "by rental, lease or lending," but instead to "distribute copies." Whatever distribute means, it means distributing a copy, not title to the copy, and that's all that happened in Christopher Phelps.
Now on to the real La-La-Land. In rejecting plaintiff's argument, the court of appeals didn't focus on the statutory language, and instead found for defendant on a ground not briefed or argued (I am told). That ground was the first sale doctrine, in Section 109. At this point, I expect readers to say, "huh?" What does first sale have to do with it; the first doctrine states, in Section 109 that it is limited to lawfully made copies. An infringing copy is by definition, not lawfully made. Yes, but the 4th Circuit panel clearly had something very very bad for breakfast. The panel holding is that when the jury awarded plaintiff the $20,000 for the use fee for the plans, plaintiff was made whole-- and this is the kicker -- the infringing copy magically became a lawfully made copy.
In reaching this result, the court cited to the 1976 House committee report; that report, however, refers to copies made under a compulsory license; that is, by a congressional act, not a judicial act. The court also cited to the Second Circuit's decision in Platt and Munk Co. v. Republic Graphics, Inc., 315 F.2d 847, 854 (2d Cir. 1963). Platt was allegedly construing the the term "vend" under that Act, and in doing so, inquired into whether the copyright owner had received its "reward" for transfer of the copies. This passage was external to the statutory provision at issue, and indeed to the facts of the case, which involved a dispute between the copyright owner of games and the manufacturer thereof over quality deficiencies. When the copyright owner refused to pay for defective goods, the manufacturer sold them. Those facts have nothing to do with a first sale since the copyright owner never took possession of the copies and the initial distribution (by the manufacturer) was, in any event, unauthorized by the copyright owner. Platt and Munk was bad law under the 1909 Act and has not been followed in the Second Circuit under the 1976 Act.
If I read the 4th Circuit opinion correctly, defendant now owns an authorized copy of the plans and can sell them; why then remand to the district court for a possible return or destruction order under Section 503(b)? That section only covers infringing copies, and of course, that paradox points out another fatal flaw in the court's first sale holding: all of the post-judgment remedies are now impossible, including an injunction. But beyond this case, are we now in a situation in the 4th Circuit where copyright owners have to elect between damages and all other remedies, on pain of infringing copies being deemed lawfully made if monetary relief is granted?