Is sharing your username with friends copyright infringement? CoStar

Is sharing your username with friends copyright infringement? CoStar

A copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to an artist that creates a new work.  Copyright law protects the expression of an idea, not the underlying idea.  This means that other artists are free to be inspired by other works so long as they do not copy another artist’s work.  For example, just because one artist paints a picture of a tree, that does not mean that paintings of trees are the property of the artist.

Another limitation on copyright law is a work must be expressive and creative to be eligible for copyright protection.  Facts and data in the abstract cannot be copyrighted.  The presentation of data might possibly be copyrighted, but reproduction of the data itself is not copyright infringement.  For example copying a listing of telephone numbers is not copyright infringement because the phone numbers are not creative, phone numbers are data.

This creates a difficult situation for companies who sell databases of information.  It has been said that information is so valuable that it is the oil of the future.  Database companies spend a significant amount of money and time compiling information and keeping it up to date.  Database companies with high quality information can charge a premium for their products.  But once a database is purchased it is easy for the purchaser to resell or share the data with other people.

Because copyright law does not protect the abstract data, database companies must use licensing agreements to prevent unauthorized sharing of their information products.  The down side to licensing agreements is that they are contracts and the damages for a breach of contract are typically much smaller than the damages which can be awarded in a copyright infringement lawsuit.  This means that database companies are always looking for novel legal arguments to get copyright protection for their database products.

A database company that is attempting to use copyright law to protect it’s database is CoStar Group.   CoStar Group is one of the leading commercial real estate information sellers, and operates the most comprehensive commercial real estate information databases available in the world.  CoStar’s database includes information about real estate for sale as well as pictures of the the real estate.  CoStar Group protects access to its database with a licensing agreement, which states users may not share their login information with other people.

CoStar has recently gone on the offensive filing 7 different lawsuits against users who allegedly allowed other people to use their usernames, or used other people’s usernames, to access CoStar’s database products.  An interesting aspect of CoStar’s lawsuits is that CoStar is alleging copyright infringement because copyrighted photographs were accessed.

CoStar Group v. and Joon Lee, 18-cv-08530 (C.D. CA 2018) illustrates the CoStar’s legal argument.  The defendant signed up for a subscription to CoStar’s service, but did not renew the subscription.  CoStar then noticed that username, which belonged to Mr. Chang, was logging into the CoStar database from an internet protocol address which was used by the defendant. Mr. Chang admitted to CoStar he shared his login credentials with the defendant.  CoStar warned Mr. Chang and the defendant against sharing usernames.  CoStar then noticed that a username, which belonged to Ms. Moon, logging in from the same internet protocol address as the defendant.  At this point CoStar filed suit against the defendant.

CoStar argues that the defendant’s behavior is copyright infringement because 5 different pictures from the database were printed out.  This would infringe on the copyright owner’s exclusive right to reproduce copyrighted works.  CoStar requests that the they be awarded statutory damages of $150,000 per infringement which could total more than $750,000.

It is a novel argument because while data in a database may not be protected by copyright law in the United States, pictures are granted copyright protection.  Whether the court agrees with CoStar has yet to be seen.

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