Intellectual Property Court Cases

As the internet has evolved, concepts like copyright, intelectual property, and Fair Use have been constantly tested and revised. Fast internet connection speeds have made it easier for everybody to share media, and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act was devised to try to deal with the resulting intelectual property theft.

Important Cases

The internet wasn't the only invention to change the way we think about intelectual property. The humble tape recorder and photocopier also introduced the possibility of copyright violation on a large scale. Many important court cases redefined the concept of intelectual property in a digital context, or served as important test cases for future discussion of copyright on the web.

Sony Corp of America v Universal City Studios

Sony Corp of America v Universal City Studios is a 1984 lawsuit, best known as the "Betamax case." Sony had developed Betamax in the late 1970s, and movie studios were immediately nervous that the device would be used to infringe copyright. In the 1984 case, the court ruled that individuals should be able to make copies of TV shows for personal use. The outcome was critical in cementing the success of the VCR among consumers, and had wider repercussions for the concept of "private time-shifting" as a Fair Use activity.

Felten v RIAA

The Felten v RIAA case centres on the right of a private individual to make copies of music for their own use. Edward Felten, a professor at Princeton, lectures on ways to get around copy protection. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) threatened to ban the publication of his research. Professor Felten appears to have withdrawn his paper.

MPAA v 2600

This case also centered around the DeCSS application for DVD copying and decryption. The Motion Picture Association of America sued on the basis that it hosted DeCSS, software that could remove copy protection.

Newmark v Turner Broadcasting System

In 2001, Turner Broadcasting System was sued by a group of studios, TV companies, and cable networks. Turner Broadcasting System had developed a VCR device that was capable of cutting advertisements out of recordings, as well as the functionality to duplicate recordings to other compatible recording devices. This case was a very early example of the entertainment industry joining forces to quash technology that could change the way its content was used. The company behind ReplayTV went out of business in 2003, and the company that purchased the rights to the device removed the controversial features.

Blizzard v BNETD

BNETD ran a gaming server that allowed players of a game produced by Blizzard to play against each other online. Blizzard claimed that BNETD violated the DMCA by reverse-engineering its own code, so that BNETD gamers could play their games on third party servers, without a valid CD key. Blizzard won the case, but the ruling has been subject to some criticism because it could theoretically limit consumer choice. Blizzard claimed it as a victory against piracy. The code produced by BNETD was subsequently used in other jurisdictions.

Jon Lech Johansen Case

Jon Lech Johansen, also known as "DVD Jon," was instrumental in discovering how content scrambling algorithms were used to obfuscate DVD content. When he was taken to court in Norway in 2002, the US DVD Copy Control Association and Motion Picture Association complained that his software infringed copyright. Johansen claimed that he wrote the front-end for his software, DeCSS, but another developer was responsible for the code that decoded the DVD video. The US DVD Copy Control Association and Motion Picture Association lost the case against him, as the Norwegian courts ruled it was legal to make copies of DVDs for personal use.

RIAA v Verizon

In 2002, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) brought a case against telecommunication provider Verizon, arguing that it should identify users that were suspected of illegally downloading mp3 files after receiving a subpoena. The court ruled that the DMCA does not allow a copyright owner to issue a subpoena to obtain personal information.

United States v ElcomSoft

The United States v Elcom Ltd case was heard in 2002, and was specifically related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The case focused on Advanced eBook Processor, an application that allowed users to circumvent copy protection techniques in eBook creation software (particularly software owned by Adobe). ElcomSoft, and its employee Dmitry Sklyarov, were found not guilty. ElcomSoft is a Russian company, and Advanced eBook Processor did not infringe copyright law in Russia.

Kelly v Arriba Soft Corp

Photographer Kelly brought this case against Arriba Soft Corp, the company behind the Ditto search engine. The search engine indexed and stored thumbnail versions of Kelly's photographs, but it did not store the full-sized version on its own server. The court ruled that search engines could use thumbnails under Fair Use. Technically, default judgement occurred in Kelly's favor, but by then, Arriba Soft Corp had gone out of business.

RIAA v The People

When file sharing was new to the internet, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued individuals and peer-to-peer networks, with the aim of stamping it out. RIAA v The People was a 2003 case against 261 Americans that it said had shared music illegally online. Within 5 years, the number of people it had sued was said to be in the tens of thousands. The RIAA announced in 2008 that it would suspend its program of litigation, having allegedly spent millions of dollars on lawsuits, collecting damages amounting to a few hundred thousand. None of the lawsuits resulted in additional royalties being paid to the artists whose material was shared.

321 Studios v Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios

321 Studios produced DVD copying software, DVD Copy Plus and DVD X Copy. In 2004, it sought judgement that its products did not violate the DMCA, but it was not successful. It was prevented from making or distributing DVD copying software, and went out of business soon after.


In this case, the American Library Association sued the Federal Communications Commission after it planned to prevent certain TV shows or movies from being recorded on receiving equipment. This protection mechanism would have taken the form of a flag, sent at the beginning of a broadcast, which would have determined the license and usage rights. It planned to introduce this flag in 2005, but the court ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to regulate devices that received signals, but did not send them.

Two rival makers of garage door opening equipment went to court in a DMCA case. Skylink made replacement remote controls for Chamberlain's doors, but Chamberlain argued that this circumvented its 'rolling code' technology, and was a form of descrambling. The court ruled that consumers were allowed to use third party remote control devices.

Lexmark v Static Control Components

Lexmark is a printer manufacturer. It had set up its printers to only accept official printer ink cartridges, using a special code to "lock out" empty or third party cartridges. Lexmark brought a case against Static Control Components, a microchip manufacturer that was able to embed its own chips into recycled cartridges. Consumers could purchase recycled cartridges with SCC's chips to circumvent Lexmark's restrictions. At the centre of the case was the DMCA, and the rights of a third party to copy Lexmark's 'lock out' code. Judges ruled that the code was functional, rather than a creative idea, and was therefore not subject to copyright protection. SCC successfully sued Lexmark for misrepresentation. The ramifications of the case were wide-reaching, and the case ran for 10 years.

Online Policy Group v Diebold

In this lawsuit, Diebold claimed that it held copyright for the contents of its own corporate emails, and took the Online Policy Group to court for publishing them. Many of the emails related to problems with its electronic voting equipment. The emails had been stolen during a hack, and republished on various websites. The Online Policy Group had refused to comply with a DMCA request demanding that it remove the emails from its servers. Diebold was found to have misused the DMCA, and the judge found that the leak was in the public interest. Additionally, the court ruled that the emails were not shared for commercial purposes, and therefore came under Fair Use.

MGM v Grokster

In 2005, MGM Studios Inc successfully sued Grokster Ltd for copyright infringement committed by its users. Grokster had won two previous hearings, when judges decided it could not be held accountable for the actions of peer-to-peer software users. In this case, judges unanimously decided that the software was clearly designed to infringe copyright. The resulting lawsuit, Grokster was forced to pay $50 million in damages.

Texas v Sony BMG Music Entertainment

The state of Texas sued Sony BMG in 2005, alleging that Sony was knowingly distributing CDs containing spyware. The MediaMax software used as a copy protection tool was cited as a potential risk to information security. Each Sony CD covertly installed this software with no means to detect or remove it. The MediaMax software could then be exploited by hackers unrelated to Sony, and sent data about the user's behavior. In total, this software was present on around 22 million Sony CDs. Sony lost and was forced to pay $750,000 in legal fees to the state, while also organizing a returns program, paying $150 per affected computer, and making consumers aware of its MediaMax tool.

Marvel v NCSoft

Marvel sued game makers NCSoft, claiming that NCSoft users could make characters that infringed its own copyright. Specifically, it related to game characters resembling superheroes in its City of Heroes game. Prior to the judgement, the judge pointed out that many characters had been created by Marvel employees or contractors. Marvel and NCSoft eventually reached a settlement.

Perfect 10 v

Perfect 10 is an adult-oriented publisher that claimed was infringing its copyright, along with Google, by indexing thumbnail images that had been used without license on unrelated websites. This case was brought in 2006. After appeals, Perfect 10 lost the case, and the images were determined to be published under Fair Use.

Diehl v Crook

In 2007, Jeff Diehl was the editor of 10 Zen Monkeys, a blog that used an image that Crook said that he owned. Diehl had written an article about Michael Crook, specifically focused his activities "outing" Craigslist personal ad users. Under DMCA law, Crook would have been entitled to have the image removed from his server. However, the image that Crook objected to was not owned by him. The case was thrown out, and Crook was compelled to take a course in copyright law.

Sapient v Geller

This 2007 case was brought after Uri Geller, a TV personality and paranormalist, disputed the use of a video of his performance. Brian Sapient used eight seconds of a video made by Geller, claiming Fair Use, and Geller used the DMCA to challenge his use of the footage. This resulted in Sapient's YouTube account being suspended, even though it was an invalid use of the DMCA; Fair Use is allowed in law. Sapient sued Geller for damages. Judgement was reached in 2008; the original video was re-licensed as non-commercial Creative Commons, along with a financial settlement.


Many countries have had to rewrite their laws to cope with the rapid pace of change. Over the last 20 years, technology has sometimes evolved more quickly than legislation. It's surprisingly easy for any digital citizen to violate intelectual property law without really trying.

However, modern legislation like the DMCA offers good protection against intelectual property theft, and its effectiveness has been proven many times in court. That's good news for content creators. And as we all become more in tune with digital content distribution and sharing, publishers are getting better at allowing their content to be shared in legal, compliant ways.

Further Reading and Resources

We have more guides, tutorials, and infogragphics related to copyright:

If you really want to understand copyright, we've created a great resource, The Ultimate Guide to Copyright And it really is the ultimate guide; it will tell most of what you need to know. After that, you'll probably need a lawyer.