On August 9th, 2018 we were served with a United States federal copyright infringement lawsuit over a handful of images displayed on our musicbrainz.org artist pages. These images were made available by Larry Philpot, a photographer, on Wikimedia Commons and we “deep linked” to the images (that note the license details and attribute the images to their creator) from our artist pages, in accord with the license terms.
The MetaBrainz Foundation prides itself in treading carefully in legal matters and so we were surprised to receive a lawsuit of this nature. All allegations in the suit were deemed false by our legal team. If you wish to find out more about this lawsuit, we encourage you to read the documents that were served to us.
Upon being served with the lawsuit, MetaBrainz contacted our legal guardian angel: Ed Cavazos of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, who has been watching over the foundation since its inception. Ed proposed our case to the pro-bono committee at Pillsbury and to our great pleasure the case was accepted! Pillsbury officially became our legal representatives in defending us in this lawsuit.
Ed assembled a team (Brian Nash, Ben Bernell, Sarah Goetz) who fired off an immediate response to the lawsuit. The team filed a timely response with the court and then began a lengthy journey of educating themselves on how MetaBrainz conducts business, how it hosts its websites, and how these websites came into existence. Over the course of many emails and calls, MetaBrainz produced volumes of conversations, bug reports, Git commits and various other forms of substantiating information that the legal team used to form a strategy.
Our legal team operated on the basis that “the best defense is a good offense”. The team’s filing showed that the accusations were unfounded and went on to question the motives and methods of the plaintiff, who has a history of taking legal action against Creative Commons users. In these legal actions he claims that the users have violated Creative Commons licenses, according to narrow, non-customary interpretations of the obligations and limitations set out in CC licenses. It didn’t take long for the plaintiff to feel our pressure and decide to cut their losses. On February 28, 2019 the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice!
Now that this is behind us, the MetaBrainz Foundation had to figure out what to do about showing Wikimedia Commons images on our websites. We talked with both the Wikimedia Foundation and Creative Commons to discuss what had happened. We learned that both Wikimedia and Creative Commons had started their own processes to examine and address the issues that led to the lawsuit being filed against the MetaBrainz Foundation.
We’re looking forward to seeing firm and decisive action from our friends at Creative Commons and Wikimedia, before other people and nonprofits are put in harm’s way by what in our opinion constitutes unacceptable, predatory misuse of CC licenses and Wikimedia Commons. MetaBrainz has made sure that CC and Wikimedia know about our experience and now we’re returning our focus to our core mission.
While we wait for Wikimedia Commons and Creative Commons to take action on this, we will not reinstate artist images or include any images that link to Wikimedia Commons. We prevailed in this lawsuit and thanks to our pro-bono legal team we suffered no harm. Being dragged through lengthy court proceedings by trolls hoping to make an example of us could exhaust our reserves and leave us broke — but that won’t stop us from vigorously defending ourselves. We are not going to let a bully push us around.
That’s about all we can say about this. The court filings speak volumes about the merits of the case and the problems of predatory abuse of CC licenses. It sucks to be the target of a pointless, predatory lawsuit. We’ve always been very careful about staying on the right side of the law, and we’re prepared to go to court to prove it, even if we can’t get pro-bono counsel.
The MetaBrainz Foundation owes a debt of gratitude to Ed Cavazos, Brian Nash, Ben Bernell, Sarah Goetz and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. We cannot overstate how fortunate we are that the team came to our rescue at a very critical juncture. Thank you to the whole team and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. Thank you!
We would also like to thank Cory Doctorow (one of our directors) for initiating and participating in many conversations. Not only was Cory’s advice critical in dealing with the lawsuit, but it was Cory and the EFF who connected us to Ed Cavazos in the first place, 15 years ago. Thank you!
I personally would like to thank Nicolás Tamargo and Michael Wiencek for their support in digging for documentation to support our side of the case. Thank you for your tireless efforts!
Finally I would like to thank our board of directors for their support in this process. Thank you Cory, Matthew, Rassami, Paul and Nick!
UPDATE: A few people have requested for us to publish our response to the lawsuit. On 28 September 2018, we filed this response with the court. That is the only public filing we made — the lawsuit was dropped on February 28, 2019 as a direct result of private conversations with the plaintiff.