Hells Angels v Redbubble

Redbubble’s online market place has survived the Hells Angels’ copyright infringement claims, but did infringe their registered trade marks. The reasoning, however, leaves questions hanging over Redbubble’s business model.

Redbubble provides an online market place. Artists can upload their artwork and potential buyers can browse the site to purchase the artwork or merchandise such as t-shirts and coffee cups emblazoned with the artwork. If a purchase is made for, say, a t-shirt with a particular artwork printed on it, Redbubble’s system arranges for the order to be placed with a fulfiller and ultimately shipped in packaging which bears a Redbubble trade mark.

The claims in this case related to uploaded images of a Hell’s Angels membership card featuring a helmeted death’s head in profile:

and registered trade marks featuring versions of the death’s head: Trade Marks Nos 526530,723291, 723463, 1257992 and 1257993.

At 552 paragraphs long, this post is going to be a high level overview only.

Copyright

A key feature in the case is that Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation (Australia) Pty Ltd is not the owner of the copyright or the registered trade marks. It contended it was the exclusive licensee in Australia of those rights; the exclusive licences having been granted by Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation, a US corporation.

The Hells Angels lost the claim of copyright infringement. They did so, however, because they could not prove Hells Angels USA was the owner of the copyright. As a result, Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation (Australia) Pty Ltd could not be the exclusive licensee.

Reaching this conclusion required Greenwood J to explore, amongst other things, the notion of publication and whether the supply of membership cards was supply of copies of the work to the public. And the non-applicability of the US “work for hire” doctrine in ownership disputes under Australian law.

Redbubble is still in trouble.

First, if the applicants had been able to prove title to the copyright, Redbubble would have infringed.

Contrary to Hells Angels’ arguments, Redbubble was not liable for infringement by uploading the images. That was done by the artists in question. In the examples in question, the acts involved uploading images to websites outside Australia. For example, Example 1 was uploaded by an individual in Virginia in the USA. So the uploaders themselves were not liable as their actions did not involve any act done in Australia. At [428] – [429], Greenwood J ruled that, even though the images were made available online to the public in Australia, the artists (uploaders) did not infringe because they did no act in Australia.

…. the act of the artist in uploading the image to the website and thus making the work available online to the public must be an act “done” (that is, an exercise of the exclusive right), “in Australia” and therefore, none of the artists in the examples in suit can be regarded as a “primary infringer” in the territorial sense contemplated by s 36(1) because the relevant act was not done “in Australia”.

His Honour found, however, that Redbubble would be liable for communicating the images to the public in Australia as it was the person who was responsible for determining the content of the communication for the purposes of s 22(6) when a potential customer in Australia viewed the image on the website. Redbubble’s business model was crucial here. At [435], his Honour explained:

The business model as described by Mr Hosking and its working operation as described by Mr Kovalev makes it plain that Redbubble is not in the nature of an ISP linking a user to remote websites. It is not an intermediary providing a transmission service between particular participants. It owns, operates, manages and controls the website and conducts a transactional enterprise in which it facilitates the uploading of images, the interrogation of those images in Australia, relevantly, by users, with a view to enabling sales to consumers of articles bearing the relevant images. It has a detailed business model in which it derives revenue from each transaction and controls every step of the transactional engagement between an artist and a buyer. It confirms the sale. It facilitates payment. It organises a fulfiller to apply the work to the relevant goods. It facilitates delivery of the goods to the buyer. It generates email responses which not only confirm the order but track every step of the transaction. It affixes its own trade marks to the goods. It says that it does not directly do that but there is no doubt that an essential part of its business model is ensuring that fulfillers affix the Redbubble trade marks to the goods. The labels bearing the trade marks are on the goods as delivered to each buyer. Although I will address the trade mark case shortly, the reference to Redbubble’s trade marks, in this context, is simply to note another feature of the extent of Redbubble’s engagement in and association with each transaction. It is Redbubble’s business. But for the Redbubble website, the transactions would not occur. The artworks would not be available online to consumers in Australia to consider and appraise with a view to purchasing a product bearing the artwork. The entire focus of the business model is to enable works to be made available online so that consumers can pick and choose amongst the works so as to have them applied to goods. It would be difficult to imagine a more directly engaged participant than one deploying the business model adopted by Redbubble. Although Redbubble describes itself as the “agent” of the artist (presumably as principal), the relationship is not, in truth, a relationship of agent and principal. Redbubble acts as an “independent contractor” to “facilitate the transaction” as the Redbubble User Agreement and Appendix A to the Services Agreement makes plain: [245] and [246] of these reasons. The artist, in truth, is not the “seller” in the classic sense in which that term might be understood because Redbubble is the supplier as the facilitator of all of the essential elements of the transaction with the consumer in an analogous way to that discussed in:  International Harvester Company of Australia Pty Ltd v Carrigan’s Hazeldene Pastoral Company [1958] HCA 16;  (1958) 100 CLR 644 at 653; Heidelberg Graphics Equipment Ltd v Andrew Knox & Associates Pty Ltd (1994) ATPR 41326 at 42, 31011, notwithstanding that the nature of the technology is different to the forms of distribution arrangement in those cases.


His Honour would, if necessary, have also found Redbubble liable for authorising the conduct if it had been infringing.

Trade Marks

Secondly, Greenwood J found Redbubble liable for infringement of the Hells Angels’ registered trade marks on works such as t-shirt designs featuring the death’s head logo.

The crux of this finding came back to Redbubble’s business model. Greenwood J accepted that the artist who uploaded the image was using the trade mark as a trade mark. Unlike the copyright test, there was no requirement that the artist be in Australia. However, so was Redbubble.

At [460] – [461], his Honour explained:

As to Redbubble, that company is “in the business” of facilitating the supply of products bearing the uploaded image of Ms Troen (in this example) or, put another way, Redbubble is in the business of facilitating the supply of clothing bearing, put simply, the registered trade marks of HAMC US (in this example). Redbubble is not the “seller” of artwork. However, it is the supplier, in the sense that it is responsible for all of the transactional supplyside elements of a transaction for the supply of goods bearing the applied works. (emphasis supplied)


Redbubble has created a business model designed to enable users, in Australia (and, for that matter users in all jurisdictions in which the website is accessible), to find images through the website comprised of, in this example, Ms Troen’s image made up of the identified trade marks of HAMC US. Redbubble enables images containing the relevant trade marks to be presented to buyers of particular goods (nominated by the artists from the website categories of those goods to which the work can be applied) expressly for the purpose of facilitating the supply of goods (clothing, in this example) to which the marks are applied. It does so by and through the functions and protocols of the website engaged by Mr Hansen (and other potential viewers of the image), in Australia.

His Honour elaborated on why Redbubble’s conduct attracted liability at [462] – [469]. While this and two other examples infringed, his Honour found that, on the particular facts, Example 2 was not infringing use.

Greenwood J’s reasons also include an extended consideration of whether Hells Angels Australia was an authorised user; ultimately concluding it was.

Greenwood J, however, rejected Hells Angels’ claims that use of “Hells Angels” as search terms, or key words, within the Redbubble site was infringing. At [542] explaining:

542. …. However, I am not satisfied that this use, in itself, is use of the word marks as a trade mark, at this point in the functionality of the website. I take that view because I am not satisfied that using the term as a search term to find a relevant image is use of the term as a “badge of origin” of Redbubble. It is, undoubtedly, a use which is designed, quite deliberately, to lead a consumer by the “search nose” to images, marks, devices, livery and badging somehow or other connected with the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.

….

544. … use of the word marks … as a search term is a search step along the way to use of the image and thus the registered trade marks, as trade marks but use of the word marks at the point of searching is not, in itself, in my view, use as a trade mark. (original emphasis)

It appears that, at the stage of entering the search term, it is not being used to identify things offered under the aegis of the Hells Angels, but just to locate things about the Hells Angels in some way.

This is the second ruling at first instance where Redbubble has been found to infringe.

While Redbubble’s business model does leave it exposed along the lines indicated above. It is worth noting that Greenwood J awarded only nominal damages of $5,000 in respect of two of the three infringements. His Honour did not allow even nominal damages in respect of the third infringement, Example 4, as it was online for a short period, viewed only 11 times and no sales resulted.

Greenwood J expressly rejected any claim for exemplary damages. His Honour does not go into reasons. Perhaps, Redbubble’s business model did protect it. The evidence was clear, for example, that Redbubble had a policy relating to infringement claims and implemented it promptly.

Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation (Australia) Pty Limited v Redbubble Limited  [2019] FCA 355

Google and facilitating or authorising

DesignTechnica operates bulletin boards. The plaintiff alleged that some postings on the bulletin boards defamed it. In addition to suing DesignTechnica, the plaintiff sued Google for libel by reproducing snippets of the (allegedly) defamatory material in search results.

Eady J, sitting in the Queen’s Bench Division,  dismissed the plaintiff’s claims against Google on the grounds that Google did not publish the material.

The case obviously turns on the requirements for an action in defamation. Of potential interest in an intellectual property context, however, is that his Lordship noted that the generation of the snippets was automatic, not volitional. Thus, his Lordship analagised Google’s position to the position of someone who merely ‘facilitated’ infringing intellectual property conduct rather than ‘authorised’ it.

In the course of his judgment, his Lordship explained:

54.  The next question is whether the legal position is, or should be, any different once the Third Defendant has been informed of the defamatory content of a “snippet” thrown up by the search engine. In the circumstances before Morland J, in Godfrey v Demon Internet, the acquisition of knowledge was clearly regarded as critical. That is largely because the law recognises that a person can become liable for the publication of a libel by acquiescence; that is to say, by permitting publication to continue when he or she has the power to prevent it. As I have said, someone hosting a website will generally be able to remove material that is legally objectionable. If this is not done, then there may be liability on the basis of authorisation or acquiescence.

55.  A search engine, however, is a different kind of Internet intermediary. It is not possible to draw a complete analogy with a website host. One cannot merely press a button to ensure that the offending words will never reappear on a Google search snippet: there is no control over the search terms typed in by future users. If the words are thrown up in response to a future search, it would by no means follow that the Third Defendant has authorised or acquiesced in that process.

In addition, Eady J noted that Google had promptly blocked access to specific URLs, but could not reasonably be expected to block all search results which could include the (allegedly) infringing snippets.

Metropolitan International Schools Ltd v DesignTechnica [2009] EWHC 1765 (QB).

Lid dip: Prof Goldman