We do it all the time, but is it legal? Maybe. Maybe not.
Embedding content from one source, e.g., a website, into another source, e.g., another website, is not uncommon. News sites embed photographs from Instagram, twitter messages, and videos into their content. Businesses embed videos and photographs of their products into their websites. Embedding also occurs when we post a link from a website into our social media accounts. For instance, after copying and pasting a website link into a social media post, an embedded version of the website automatically generates. This auto embedding typically consists of the formation of a small box or window which may include a reference to the website, an article name or title, and/or an image or video from the website. But is such use of embedded content copyright infringement?
Under the Copyright Act, the owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to “perform…. [or] display the copyrighted work publicly.” 17 U.S.C. §§ 106(4)-(6). Under the act, to” perform or display a work publicly” includes “to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work… to the public, by means of any device or process.” 17 U.S.C. § 101. The Act further defines “display” as “to show a copy of it, either directly or by means of a film, slide, television image, or any other device or process.” Id.
In Perfect 10 v. Google the Ninth Circuit established the “server test.” In this 2007 decision, it was held that Google’s presentation of images in its search results via in-line linking did not infringe another’s copyrights because Google did not make a copy or store a copy of the image on its servers. That is, the court found that Google wasn’t displaying a “copy.” For many, this settled the issue: as long as the content was hosted on third-party servers, an in-line or embedded link showing the same content elsewhere would not infringe. But in the last several months, something unexpected happened.
Two district courts recently rejected the holding in Perfect 10 to the extent it required actual possession (e.g., a copy on the accused infringer’s server) as a prerequisite for infringement because neither could find any such requirement in the express language of the Copyright act.
First, the Northern District of Texas held that when one website displays content from another’s website through embedding, it can publicly display copyrighted works of another “by ‘showing a copy’ of the works via a ‘process’” in violation of the Copyright Act. In effect, the court held, this was a live stream of another’s copyrighted content and no different than if a movie goer live streamed a movie via the internet to the public – actions that clearly constitute infringement even if the infringer does not possess a copy. Next, the Southern District of New York similarly held that embedding content into a website such that it displays content from another source could violate a copyright holder’s display rights, even if the website’s server did not store a copy of the work.
Thus, the law on embedded content may not yet be as settled as some believed. Of course, there are always defenses to copyright infringement to consider, like fair use. In the meantime, however, it may be wise to think twice before posting embedded content.