Tuesday, March 29, 2016
“Direct Financial Benefit” and Vicarious Infringement. Or, I Don’t Think That Means What You Think It Means
Well, last week’s post brought this blog back from the dead, and did it with a bang! I had more page hits in the two weeks than I’ve had in the entirety of the blog’s history! Apparently, this got shared around Facebook rather extensively, and last week, David Post, who writes for The Volokh Conspiracy on the Washington Post website, linked to my post for his op-ed piece on the Axanar lawsuit (calling my post an excellent summary of the background)!
Since I’ve garnered so much attention, I figure it would be near criminal of me to let this blog lay fallow again. Fortunately, I have more to say, and specifically on the topic of the last post.
As I said in my last post, Mr. Peters has a number of detractors. They are the ones who go on about how Mr. Peters used the money donated for Axanar to build a “for-profit” studio, or Mr. Peters’ salary, or how he “sold coffee” to fund the production, and how all this was his way of “making money” off the IP of Star Trek. Moreover, they say this is why CBS and Paramount are suing Axanar.
For his part, Mr. Peters has said repeatedly that this lawsuit is not about money, but about allegations of copyright infringement. Presumably, he’s in a better position to know what CBS/P’s concerns than the general public is. However, there is a line in the complaint which alleges the defendants receive a “direct financial benefit”. The detractors have used that line to bolster their narrative, and call Mr. Peters a liar.
It does seem to pose an apparent paradox. How can a lawsuit not be about money when it says “direct financial benefit” right in the complaint? However, to paraphrase a line from The Princess Bride, that line doesn’t mean what they think it means.
The suit claims all the different type of copyright infringement that can be claimed, of which there are three. The first is direct infringement, which is rather self-explanatory. The other two are what are known as “secondary infringement”. It is somewhat analogous to aiding and abetting infringement. These are called contributory infringement, and vicarious infringement.
In order to claim vicarious infringement, two things must be true:
1) The person this is claimed against must have the right or ability to influence or control the actions of the infringing party.
2) The person this is claimed against must receive a direct financial benefit from the actions of the infringing party.
One example of this would be if a theater hires a band to play music, and that band plays copyrighted music they don’t have license to play. Another would be a flea market or swap meet renting space to a person who sells pirated DVDs. In either case, the venue owners would be guilty because they have control over the actions of the infringing parties, and they benefit financially from the infringing actions. For a more concrete example, this is one of the two ways Napster was found guilty of copyright infringement (contributory infringement being the other).
Now, of the three types of infringement that can be brought, only vicarious infringement carries with it the necessity of proving a financial component to it. And sure enough, if you look at the complaint, the only place that phrase occurs in the complaint is in the section which alleges vicarious infringement. Therefore, mentioning “direct financial benefit” is basically boilerplate language for making that allegation. So while the language is there (mainly because it has to be), the intent which it is a part of is to allege copyright violation. In which case, Mr. Peters is not lying when he says this suit is about copyright. Only those who practice the dark art of Pedantry could argue otherwise.
Moreover, (and this is where me being not-a-lawyer comes in) I’m at a loss to figure how that type of infringement comes into play in this particular situation. Personally, I’m inclined to go with my previous speculation that this complaint was written mainly to intimidate Axanar Productions into bending to their will.
But, most importantly, I don’t see how the paying of salaries, building out a soundstage, the amount of money donated to the production, or any of the other things the detractors bring up to say that it’s about money and Mr. Peters is a liar fits into the specific meaning of the phrase “direct financial benefit” as I’ve just outlined above. It’s really not a brush one can paint the production with.
In other words, I’m pretty sure that phrase doesn’t mean what the detractors think it means.