In Brief:  Google’s use of framing in its search results is a copyright issue.

Here’s What Happened:  

Best Carpet Values, Inc. brought a class action suit against Google. Google’s search results for Best Carpet Value on an Android phone were displayed in a frame. The frame included links to websites owned by Best Carpet's direct competitors and negative news stories about Best Carpet's owner. The frame occupied 80% of the view leaving a measly 20% for Best Carpet’s website. Best Carpet argued that by displaying the frame and half-page digests, Google “occup[ied] valuable space” on the websites of class members. So Google should have paid for because it “obtain[ed] all the benefits of advertising” from use of that space.

Best Carpet’s primary claim was that websites of class members are chattel and Google was using them without permission thus committing “trespass to chattel” or conversion. Best Carpet based this claim on a decision that domain names were chattel capable of conversion, Kremen v. Cohen, 337 F.3d 1024 (9th Cir. 2003). Best Carpet asserted other claims such as an implied-in-law contract and unjust enrichment.

The district court denied Google’s motion to dismiss but granted Google leave to file an interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Ninth Circuit first discussed the common law of property generally. Property law protects an owner's expectation that they will be relatively undisturbed at least in the possession of their property. So, the general principles of property law require that a property owner have the legal right to exclude others from use and enjoyment of that property. But, the plaintiffs in this case do not have a legal entitlement recognized under the common law of property. The Ninth Circuit held that the district court erred in focusing on the complained of acts instead of the origin of Best Carpet’s rights. Best Carpet’s complaints fall squarely within the Copyright Act. A website is a work of authorship that is capable of copyright registration. The Copyright Act preempts all causes of action based on original works of authorship. Best Carpet is complaining that Google displayed or reproduced copies of the website or prepared derivative works. These are part of the bundle of rights granted to a copyright owner by the Copyright Act. So much for Best Carpet’s trespass to chattel claim.

Best Carpet’s other causes of action met the same Copyright Act preemption fate.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court and remanded the case for entry of an order of dismissal.

Why You Should Know This: It appears that Best Carpet believed it didn’t have an infringement claim and so it could pursue other state law claims instead.  If there’s one quibble with this decision, it is in on the issue of breach of an implied contract. The laws of contract formation and breach do not depend on the origin of rights in a work of authorship. And it shouldn’t. Consider a situation where the parties to a copyright license dispute how the licensor calculates royalties. This is purely a matter of contract interpretation (and math?). So, perhaps, Best Carpet’s case can live another day by focusing solely on its breach of contract claim.

Case Information: Best Carpet Values, Inc. v. Google, LLC, 90 F.4th 962 (9th Cir. 2024)

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