A Closed Book: No Past Infringement, No Reading Between the Lines into the Future
The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, finding no current or future copyright infringement. OverDrive Inc. v. Open E-Book Forum dba International Digital Publishing Forum, Case No. 20-3432 (6th Cir. Jan. 27, 2021) (Sutton, J.)
OverDrive is a digital reading platform and a member of International Digital Publishing Forum, a nonprofit trade association dedicated to the development of electronic publishing standards. The Forum has an intellectual property policy, approved by Overdrive and its other members, which provides that while its members retain copyrights in their contributions, they also grant the Forum a license to “reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, display, and create derivative works” of any copyrighted contributions to EPUB, the leading eBook file format. The license also allowed the Forum to sublicense others to do the same.
In 2016, the Forum entered into an asset-transfer agreement with the World Wide Web Consortium, an international organization dedicated to developing web standards. The agreement granted the Consortium a “license to use” the Forum’s intellectual property to carry out digital publishing activities. The agreement further provided that the Forum would dissolve and its intellectual property rights, including any in EPUB, would be owned by the Consortium. The Consortium began developing improvements to EPUB. Shortly thereafter, the Forum and the Consortium entered into a second agreement, which provided that the Consortium’s license to “use” the intellectual property encompassed a license to “reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, display and create derivative works.” In the second agreement the Forum agreed to begin the dissolution process only if and only when it transferred its intellectual property to the Consortium.
OverDrive sought a declaratory judgment that the Forum had violated and would violate its copyrights in EPUB. OverDrive claimed that the Forum infringed its copyrights by giving the Consortium access to EPUB. At the close of discovery, the Forum moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted for two reasons. First, it found that the Forum’s license defeated the infringement claim. Second, it found the claim for future infringement was not ripe. OverDrive appealed.
The Sixth Circuit agreed that the “use” license granted by Overdrive gave the Forum the right to “reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, display and create derivative works” of Overdrive’s EPUB copyrights, and permitted the Forum to use the copyrighted work in these ways. The license also gave the Forum an unrestricted right to grant sublicenses with respect to those same copyrights. In turn, the appellate court concluded that the Forum permissibly sublicensed EPUB to the Consortium, including any of OverDrive’s copyrights in EPUB.
In support of its claims of future copyright infringement, OverDrive argued that once the Forum dissolved, the Consortium would lose its sublicense and its work on EPUB would then constitute copyright infringement. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. The ripeness doctrine two-question inquiry asks:
Does the claim arise in a concrete factual context and concern a dispute that is likely to come to pass?
What is the hardship to the parties of withholding court consideration?
Considering the first question, the Sixth Circuit found that “if and when” events that may or may not happen would require hypothetical rulings about hypothetical facts—“just the kind of advice Article III bars us from offering.” Turning to the second question, the Court questioned how OverDrive could be prejudiced when no current infringement exists. The Sixth Circuit concluded that any “theory of prejudice is just as unripe as everything else in this claim.”