District Court Dismisses Majority of Craigslist’s Copyright Infringement Claims against Competitors

Craigslist Inc., v. 3Taps Inc. et al., No. CV 12-03816 CRB, is an action brought by Craigslist alleging that its competitors 3Taps, Padmapper, Inc., and Discover Home Network, Inc., improperly harvested and reproduced contents of Craigslist’s website. While Craigslist allows users to submit and browse classified advertisements, the defendant competitors aggregated and republished certain Craiglist ads without permission. On April 29, 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer (Northern District of California) granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss in part, throwing out a subset of the copyright claims brought by Craigslist.

To satisfy the first element of copyright infringement, Craigslist must prove that they had ownership of a valid copyright. To do so, they must first show that the compilation of posts and the posts themselves are sufficiently original to warrant copyright protection. As Craigslist users create unique advertisements with titles, descriptions and other details, the individual posts are sufficiently original to be copyrightable. This is also true with respect to the compilation of posts, which are grouped by geographic area and product/service type.

Though the court held the material was copyrightable, only the owner of an exclusive right under copyright is entitled to sue for infringement, and the court found that Craigslist did not prove exclusive ownership. Outside of a period from July 16, 2012 through August 8, 2012, the Craigslist terms of use did not specify whether Craigslist’s license is exclusive. Although the terms of use did grant Craigslist the right to sue, it was not valid standing on its own, as a party may not assign the right to sue for infringement without also granting an exclusive license or ownership. Craigslist was unable to prove that an ambiguous grant of rights is presumptively exclusive. Thus, the terms of use before July 16, 2012 and after August 8, 2012 did not grant Craigslist an exclusive right and Craigslist therefore cannot sue for infringement of such posts. Craigslist did, however, acquire exclusive licenses to posts between July 16, 2012 and August 8, 2012 when its terms of use asked users to confirm that Craigslist acquires an exclusive license to all ads submitted by users. Thus, Craigslist can sue for infringement of posts submitted during this time period. Accordingly, the court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss the copyright claims with respect to user-created posts submitted before July 16, 2012 or after August 8, 2012.

Copyright holders of works created by others should be aware that in order to sue for infringement of such works, they must own an exclusive right to the work. The transfer of an exclusive license, while not requiring any magic words, must be in writing and demonstrate an intent to transfer an exclusive right.