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UCLA Streaming Video Case Dismissed

On Monday, October 3rd, a federal judge in Los Angeles dismissed the copyright infringement lawsuit brought by AIME (Association for Information Media and Equipment, whose members include Ambrose Video) against UCLA.  The suit alleged that UCLA was infringing copyright and violating the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA by ripping DVDs, which were subsequently streamed via a course management system to students in a particular class (to which the students had to authenticate before gaining access).  

The two major reasons for the dismissal decision were sovereign immunity and lack of standing.  AIME argued that UCLA had waived its sovereign immunity when it signed a contract with AIME, but the judge rejected that argument as too broad.  Also, the decision stated that because AIME is not the holder of any of the copyrights at issue in the case it lacked standing to bring the action.  The remainder of the ruling concerned more substantive issues; although by no means was there any determinative interpretation of fair use or the DMCA.

Fair Use and DMCA Aspects of the Ruling

In its license Ambrose granted UCLA the right of public performance for the DVDs at issue. As a result, UCLA was entitled to put the DVD content on its intranet, and doing so, the judge ruled, "does not take the viewing of the DVD out of the educational context," regardless of where it is accessed.  "The type of access that students and/or faculty may have, whether overseas or at a coffee shop, does not take the viewing of the DVD out of the educational context," the judge wrote.  The plaintiffs had argued that streaming is not included in public performance because it can be accessed outside of a classroom setting.

The decision while clearly a win for the Regents of the University of California is less than a definitive victory for fair use.  The ruling did not resolve the question of whether streaming in an online classroom is fair use when no such public performance license is given.

The judge ruled that the copying in this case (changing the format of the DVD in order to stream it) did not violate Ambrose’s rights under copyright law because "the copying was an incidental use of their right to publicly perform the DVDs.  Incidental exercises of other lawful rights constitute non-infringing 'fair use.'"  The judge also ruled, without elaboration, that the plaintiffs had not countered UCLA's argument that streaming is not "distribution."

As for the DMCA, it has two distinct provisions: a prohibition on circumventing copy protection that controls access to a work, and a ban on "trafficking" in circumvention tools.  The judge accepted UCLA's argument that its lawful purchase of the DVD meant it could not have violated the circumvention provision, but he did not elaborate on his reasoning.  He then ruled that merely purchasing DVD-ripping software did not constitute "trafficking" in the software.

Some have noted that the ruling represents a departure from the traditional understanding of the DMCA, and could have significant effects if it is upheld on appeal.  The goal of DRM is to prevent even legal purchasers of copyrighted works from making unauthorized copies of the works.   If lawful ownership of a DVD precludes a finding of unlawful circumvention, it could bring into question a major provision of the DMCA.  That has yet to be determined, however.

A key point for higher education to contemplate is that the issue of whether or not streamed video for a course-related use, assignments, etc. is a fair use has not been decided definitively with this decision.  AIME has until October 17th to decide whether to file an amended complaint.

EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor and report on this issue.