By Barry Werbin
A very interesting and detailed case addressing what constitutes a published "US work" in the context of global online publishing and distribution, is Kernel Records Oy v. Timothy Z. Mosley p/k/a Timbaland, et al. (11th Cir. Sept. 14, 2012). The plaintiff, a Finnish record company, had purchased rights to a musical computer arrangement called Acidjazzed Evening, which was first published by the original author allegedly in Australia in August 2002 as a "disk magazine" called Vandalism News, and later by a Swedish website, which had uploaded it. The defendants (including UMG, EMI and other music publishers) created, distributed and marketed an allegedly infringing (sampled) song called Do It. Kernel failed to apply for U.S. copyright registration, but alleged that because the work was first published outside the U.S., no U.S. registration was required as a prerequisite to sue. Mosley argued, however, that by making Acidjazzed Evening available for download from an "Internet site," the work was simultaneously "published" in every country of the world having Internet service and, thus, the work was subject to the U.S. registration requirement. The Florida District Court agreed and dismissed the case on a summary judgment motion based on its view that the Copyright Act dictates that a work simultaneously published in every country of the world should be treated as a "United States work" under Section 411 of the Act, and therefore is subject to the Copyright Act's registration requirement.
The 11th Circuit affirmed on alternative grounds under Section 411 of the Act but rejected the District Court's analysis and basis for the summary judgment grant, stating: "The district court...confounded 'the Internet' and 'online' with 'World Wide Web' and 'website.' Because of the strict temporal and geographic requirements contained in the statutory definition of 'United States work,' conflating these terms had a profound impact on the district court's evidentiary analysis. By confounding 'Internet' with 'website,' the district court erroneously assumed that all 'Internet publication' must occur on the 'World Wide Web' or a 'website.' The district court then erroneously assumed all 'Internet publication' results in simultaneous, worldwide distribution. [A] proper separation of the terms yields a very different analysis." The Court ultimately held that Mosley failed to meet his factual burden in establishing the exact nature of the online posting of the song and its intended scope of distribution to support summary judgment in defendants' favor. The Court noted that "proof of distribution or an offer to distribute, alone, is insufficient to prove publication. Central to the determination of publication is the method, extent, and purpose of distribution" and in the context of whether a work was first published abroad, also relevant is the "timing and geographic extent of the first publication."
However the Court ruled alternately that, based on discovery in the case, summary judgment was still warranted because "[t]he record reveals a lack of sufficiently probative evidence to determine that Acidjazzed Evening is a foreign work" because there was no evidence that the Australian "disk magazine" site was ever made "publicly accessible." The Court concluded that there was only "simple speculation that Acidjazzed Evening "was published on the Internet [in Vandalism News] in August 2002. A reasonable fact-finder could not find that a simultaneous, worldwide publication occurred in August 2002. Because the record lacks sufficiently probative evidence of simultaneous worldwide publication, we need not determine what effect simultaneous worldwide publication would have under 17 U.S.C. §101's definition of a United States work." As Kernel Records bore the burden of proving compliance with statutory formalities, the Circuit affirmed summary judgment on this alternative ground.
Therefore the core issue remains of what constitutes a "U.S. work" for first publication purposes in the context of online/Web/Internet uploading first done outside the U.S.