Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Copyright
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The case revolves around a dispute over the estate of Dr. Lester Frank Sumrall, who founded a church that grew into a global evangelical empire, LeSEA, Inc. After his death, his son and grandson, Lester Sumrall, claimed they should have inherited part of his estate, including copyrights to his works and his right of publicity. They alleged that LeSEA, now controlled by other family members, had wrongfully taken ownership of these assets.The case was initially heard in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. The district court dismissed the claims brought by Lester Sumrall and the Lester Sumrall Family Trust against LeSEA and its affiliates, ruling in favor of LeSEA on all counts. The court found that the copyright claims were untimely and that LeSEA owned the copyright to a particular photograph, the "Traveler Photo," taken by Lester Sumrall. The court also dismissed various state law claims for damages under the doctrine of laches, citing inexcusable delay in asserting rights and prejudice to the adverse party.Upon appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court agreed that the copyright claims were untimely and that LeSEA owned the copyright to the Traveler Photo. The court also upheld the application of laches to the state law claims, noting that laches is equally applicable in suits at law in Indiana. Finally, the court dismissed the claim for LeSEA's alleged use of Dr. Sumrall's right of publicity, as the Trust failed to plead the required half-ownership. View "Sumrall v. LeSEA, Inc." on Justia Law

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The defendants each licensed computer code from Live Face for $328. Live Face then sued them for copyright infringement, seeking about $483,000 in damages. Live Face has roughly 200 copyright suits pending. After more than five years, with summary judgment pending, Live Face successfully moved to dismiss its suit with prejudice. It argued that a 2021 Supreme Court case (Google) made the defendants’ fair-use defense insurmountable. The defendants sought fees; the district court denied the motion, finding that the defendants did not prevail because of their defenses but rather due to a fortuitous, unforeseen change in the law.The Seventh Circuit vacated and remanded. The Copyright Act authorizes prevailing parties to recover costs and fees, 17 U.S.C. 505. Four nonexclusive factors are relevant: the frivolousness of the suit; the losing party’s motivation for bringing or defending against a suit; the objective unreasonableness of the claims advanced by the losing party; and the need to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence. The defendants did prevail because of their defenses, including their fair-use defense. No matter which side prevailed in Google, the law would favor one of these parties. It is unclear whether Google changed anything relevant here, without a proper analysis of how Google affected Live Face’s claims. Even if Google did change something fundamental, the defendants raised defenses apart from fair use, which might have defeated Live Face’s claims. View "Live Face on Web, LLC v. Cremation Society of Illinois, Inc." on Justia Law

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Sullivan registered copyrights for two “illustration collections,” comprising 33 individual illustrations, and sued Flora for infringing those copyrights, 17 U.S.C. 504(c)(1). A jury found that Flora willfully infringed Sullivan’s copyrights and awarded statutory damages for each of the individual illustrations infringed ($3,600,000). The Seventh Circuit rejected the court's test for calculating statutory damages, which focused exclusively on how the illustrations were copyrighted. The court adopted the “independent economic value test”: “A protected work has standalone value if the evidence shows that work has distinct and discernable value to the copyright holder.” On remand, the district court denied Flora’s request to reopen discovery; held that Flora had waived arguments challenging the independent economic value of certain illustrations; granted Sullivan summary judgment; and entered the same verdict, finding that the 33 illustrations constitute separate works.The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that, in entering summary judgment, the district court violated the remand mandate and improperly weighed the evidence. The case must proceed to trial on the question of damages. The scope of the remand was narrow and limited to determining whether Sullivan’s illustrations “constitute 33 individual works or instead are parts of two compilations (corresponding with the two advertising campaigns in which Flora used the illustrations).” At trial, Flora is not prohibited from “nitpicking” specific aspects of the 33 illustrations to show that they lack independent economic value. Flora is not permitted to relitigate the issues of infringement or joint authorship. View "Sullivan v. Flora, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Kerstiens family runs companies that build single-family homes out of Jasper, Indiana. Plan Pros and Prime Designs are home design companies that license their plans through Design Basics, which acts as a broker, serving as an intermediary between home builders and design firms. Design Basics markets the thousands of plans it holds copyrights to through trade publications, promotional materials placed in home improvement stores, and national builder associations and “has become a serial litigant,” having filed more than 100 infringement suits against home builders.In affirming the dismissal of Design Basic’s suit against the Kerstiens, the Seventh Circuit referred to “intellectual property trolls,” enforcing copyrights not to protect expression, but to extract payments through litigation. Design Basics has thin copyright in its plans because they consist largely of standard features found in homes across America. View "Design Basics, LLC v. Kerstiens Homes & Designs, Inc" on Justia Law

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Design Basics is a copyright troll and holds registered copyrights in thousands of floor plans for suburban, single-family tract homes. Its employees trawl the Internet in search of targets for strategic infringement suits of questionable merit, hoping to secure “prompt settlements with defendants who would prefer to pay modest or nuisance settlements rather than be tied up in expensive litigation.” The Seventh Circuit has previously (Lexington Homes) held that Design Basics’ copyright in its floor plans is thin. The designs consist mainly of unprotectable stock elements—a few bedrooms, a kitchen, a great room, etc. Much of their content is dictated by functional considerations and existing design conventions for affordable, suburban, single-family homes. When copyright in an architectural work is thin, only a “strikingly similar” work gives rise to a possible infringement claim.Design Basics sued Signature Construction for copying 10 of its registered floor plans for suburban, single-family homes. The district court granted Signature summary judgment based largely on the reasoning of Lexington Homes. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. For this category of claims, only extremely close copying is actionable as unlawful infringement. That standard is not satisfied in this case. View "Design Basics, LLC v. Signature Construction, Inc." on Justia Law

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Apple owns Madison, Wisconsin vitamin stores. Knott, a former Apple employee, was fired in 2017. Knott founded his own vitamin shop, Embrace Wellness, in Middleton, Wisconsin. Embrace allegedly shared design features and a similar layout with Apple’s locations and carried comparable products. Apple sued, alleging infringement of its trademark, trade dress, and copyrights. The defendants filed counterclaims for tortious interference and retaliation. Apple sought a preliminary injunction on the trademark and trade dress claims, which the court denied, explaining that Apple had failed to show a likelihood of irreparable harm. Apple then moved to dismiss its own claims without prejudice. Because the defendants had already expended resources litigating an injunction, the court ordered Apple to withdraw its motion or accept dismissal with prejudice, expressing its opinion that no party’s claim was strong. Apple agreed to dismiss its claims with prejudice.The court subsequently denied defendants’ motion for fees; they appealed with respect to the copyright claims. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Apple’s copyright claims were frivolous—common-law copyright was abolished in 1976—but the totality of the circumstances did not warrant fees. There was no evidence that Apple had filed suit with an improper motive, and no need to deter future frivolous filings. The case was primarily about trademark and trade dress. no motions were filed related to copyright. Apple dismissed the copyright claims voluntarily before defendants had to argue against them. View "Timothy B. O'Brien LLC v. Knott" on Justia Law

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Sullivan, a graphic design artist, produced 33 illustrations for Flora, an herbal supplement company, to use in two advertising campaigns. Upon noticing that Flora was using the illustrations in other ads, Sullivan brought suit for copyright infringement and opted to pursue statutory damages to maximize her potential payout by classifying each of her 33 illustrations as “one work” within the meaning of section 504(c)(1) of the Copyright Act. Flora argued that the illustrations were part of two broader compilations. The district court instructed the jury that Sullivan could recover separate awards of statutory damages for 33 acts of infringement on 33 separate illustrations. The jury returned a statutory damages award of $3.6 million. The Seventh Circuit vacated. The district court committed error in permitting separate awards of statutory damages unaccompanied by any finding that each or any of the 33 illustrations constituted “one work” within the meaning and protection of section 504(c)(1). View "Sullivan v. Flora, Inc." on Justia Law

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Narkiewicz‐Laine, an artist, rented space from the defendants in 2004. About six years later, the defendants cleared the rental space and discarded most of his property, including his only records of the stored property. Narkiewicz‐Laine filed suit, citing the Visual Artists Rights Act, 17 U.S.C. 106A. For certain visual art, the Act confers upon artists rights to attribution and integrity, including the right to prevent the work’s destruction. Narkiewicz‐Laine added claims for trespass, conversion, and negligence under Illinois law. He sought $11 million for his losses. The defendants presented evidence that Narkiewicz‐Laine had missed multiple rent payments and stopped paying for the property's utilities, and testified that, before emptying the space, they saw nothing resembling art or valuable personal property. The defendants introduced Narkiewicz‐Laine's prior conviction for lying to an FBI agent. The jury awarded $120,000 in damages under the Act plus $300,000 on the state law claims, reflecting the loss of all the belongings stored at the unit. The court reduced the total award to $300,000 to avoid an improper double recovery, reasoning that Narkiewicz‐Laine’s common law claims necessarily included the loss of his artwork. The court concluded did not award Narkiewicz‐Laine attorneys’ fees under the Copyright Act. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, first upholding the decision to allow Narkiewicz‐Laine’s 2003 conviction into evidence. Narkiewicz‐Laine is not entitled to recover twice for the same property, so the actual damages attributed to specific art must be subtracted from the jury’s award of actual damages for all destroyed property. View "Narkiewicz-Laine v. Doyle" on Justia Law

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Bell sued Vacuforce for copyright infringement, accusing it of publishing his photograph of the Indianapolis skyline on its website without a license. Vacuforce hired attorney Overhauser. The parties quickly settled; the federal lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice. Overhauser then moved to recover attorney fees from Bell, arguing that because the settlement produced a dismissal with prejudice, Vacuforce was the “prevailing party” for purposes of fees under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 505. The district court denied Overhauser’s as motion frivolous and misleading and ordered monetary sanctions against Overhauser: one under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 and another under 28 U.S.C. 1927. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the sanctions, rejecting an argument that a party can “prevail” for purposes of a fee-shifting statute by paying a settlement and obtaining a dismissal with prejudice. The district court did not abuse its discretion by imposing the section 1927 sanction. “Objective bad faith” will support such a sanction. A lawyer demonstrates objective bad faith when she “pursues a path that a reasonably careful attorney would have known, after appropriate inquiry, to be unsound.” The district court found that Overhauser’s legal contentions were baseless and that he failed to disclose the proper factual foundation necessary to evaluate his legal argument. View "Overhauser v. Bell" on Justia Law

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Fryer and the Alliance for Water Efficiency collaborated on a study about drought. The Alliance worked on funding. Fryer circulated a draft of the report. The Alliance expressed concern with the methodology and sued Fryer under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 101. Under a settlement Fryer agreed to turn over his data from public utilities in exchange for $25,000. If any utility had disclosed data with a confidentiality agreement, the Alliance was required to secure a release. Each party could publish a report, but could not acknowledge the other’s involvement. The parties have litigated ever since. The district court concluded that the Alliance was entitled to specific data and that Fryer was bound by the settlement to refrain from acknowledging disputed organizations unless they contacted him first and asked to be recognized. The judge required the Alliance to provide those organizations with Fryer’s contact information. The Seventh Circuit reversed solely on the acknowledgment issue. Fryer returned to the district court, seeking restitution for injuries caused by the court’s erroneous injunction and attorney’s fees under section 505 of the Copyright Act for having prevailed in the first appeal. The Seventh Circuit affirmed denial of both motions. Fryer does not present genuine claims for restitution; he seeks to relitigate unrelated claims for breach of the settlement. He did not prevail on the Alliance’s copyright claim. View "Alliance for Water Efficiency v. Fryer" on Justia Law