You might recall me writing about ACS v. ResearchGate, a lawsuit filed last fall in the United States by ACS and Elsevier against ResearchGate. It followed a similar lawsuit filed a year earlier in Germany. In both the German and U.S. versions of this lawsuit, the basic complaint is that ResearchGate infringed the publishers’ copyrights by hosting and publicly distributing scholarly articles for which the publishers claim to own exclusive rights.
Nothing had happened in the U.S. case for months, but yesterday ResearchGate made several filings. ResearchGate has apparently retained Durie Tangri (the same law firm that represented Google in the Google Books lawsuit) and has invested in making some opening arguments that I think are pretty smart.
Authors rights: the argument I’ve been waiting for
The most interesting ResearchGate filing isn’t its factual answer to the complaint, but rather the motion that ResearchGate made accompanying its answer. That motion, with the inconspicuous title of “Motion for Notice Under 17 U.S.C. § 501(b)” asks the court to open the door for something big: communicating about the litigation with the actual authors of the articles posted to ResearchGate. Imagine that!
ResearchGate begins its argument by pointing out the unusual nature of the case, and why it is so important to clearly sort out who owns rights (authors versus publishers) in the articles underlying the lawsuit:
A typical copyright infringement lawsuit about copyrighted material appearing online involves a content creator suing a website owner when an unauthorized third party has posted the creator’s work to the website without the creator’s permission. But here, [the publishers] are suing . . . ResearchGate for allowing scientists to share their own work. . . . Under Plaintiffs’ infringement theories, if ResearchGate is infringing Plaintiffs’ copyrights in the articles at issue here, so are those articles’ authors. Accordingly, a finding that the appearance of those articles on the ResearchGate site was infringing would necessarily mean that the people who conducted the research and wrote the articles did not have the right to share them.
The motion goes on to argue that many authors of these articles (almost all of which were co-authored) still hold a valid copyright interest in them that would allow those authors to legally post the articles to ResearchGate. Even assuming that the publishers obtained valid transfers of exclusive rights from the corresponding authors, ResearchGate argues that there is no evidence that the publishers also obtained a valid transfer of exclusive rights from co-authors of the papers. Thus, those co-authors are free to make what uses they want with their papers, including posting to ResearchGate.
Given that these authors may hold rights, ResearchGate argues that § 501(b) of the Copyright Act allows (and may even require) the court to order notification of those authors as third parties who have a “claim or interest” in the copyrighted works at issue. Section 501(b) provides that the court:
- may require written notice of the action with a copy of the complaint provided to “any person shown . . . to have or claim an interest in the copyright,” and
- shall require that such notice be served upon any person whose “interest is likely to be affected by a decision in the case,”
In addition to notification, the statute also provides for a way to actually bring third-parties into the lawsuit. It says that the court “may require the joinder, and shall permit the intervention of any person having or claiming an interest in the copyright” (emphasis mine).
ResearchGate is, for now, just asking the court to order the plaintiffs to notify other potential copyright owners about the lawsuit. Specifically, ResearchGate is asking the court to “order Plaintiff’s “to serve ‘written notice of the action with a copy of the complaint upon’ each co-author of each journal article at issue in the lawsuit who is not a corresponding author. . . .” I don’t know exactly how many authors that is (as I’ve said previously, there are over 3,000 articles), but it’s probably a lot.
Procedure, procedure, procedure
You may think I’m getting all worked up over a little bit of civil procedure. Maybe. But I think it is important because over and over again we’ve seen large-scale copyright infringement suits fought between the large organizations (e.g., Authors Guild v. Google, Authors Guild v. HathiTrust, Elsevier v. SciHub, Cambridge University Press v. Becker (Ga. State)) without much input at all from the actual authors of the works that form the basis of those lawsuits. When those authors have been allowed to have a say, such as in the Google Books class action certification process, their input has meaningfully altered the outcome.
For the ResearchGate litigation, it seems like a good start to at least require the Plaintiffs to notify authors that their work is being used as the basis for a copyright infringement lawsuit. I would hope, once authors are notified, that the court would also allow those same authors to intervene, as the statute allows, to have their own say in how their works are shared with the world.