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Architectural Design Copyright: Analyzing Strategic Trolling in Light of the Design Basics Judgement

Like any other form of creative works of expression, copyright protection was extended to work of architectural design keeping in mind the creative labour that goes into the production of such works and to protect the legitimate interest of such bona fide authors. However, there have been instances where copyright owners have made their revenue model to indulge in the scheme of copyright trolling.

 

Copyright trolling is a scenario where creators of copyrighted work enforce their work with the hopes of profiting from favorable infringement enforcement lawsuits.

This article analyses one such US case which was an appeal in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal i.e., Design Basics, LLC v. Signature Construction[1] that addressed the question of copyright protection over architectural designs and its alleged infringement by a subsequently developed floor plan. The article also touches upon the Indian intellectual property laws that deal with copyright protection of architectural designs.

Background of the Design Basics Case

The Appellant had received copyright registration over series of its floor plans and sued Defendant for alleged infringement of ten of its floor plans. In response, the Defendants moved for summary judgment, wherein the lower court, while dismissing the Appellant’s claim of infringement ruled that the Appellant’s copyright protection in its floor plan was ‘thin’ and only a ‘strikingly similar’ plan could give rise to an infringement claim. The Appellant’s appeal against the Summary Judgement met with the same fate as the seventh circuit court, re-affirmed the position taken by the lower court for reasons explained herein in greater detail. While doing so, the court came down heavily on the Appellant i.e., Design Basics, LLC., a home design company, for its floor plan-based copyright trolling scheme that it had utilized to file over a hundred copyright cases, including the present one, in federal courts that had resulted in thousands of victims paying license/settlement fees.

Test of Similarity: Independent Creation or Unlawful Copying   

In the present case, the copyright protection was hailed as a thin one, as the designs mostly consisted of unprotectable and basic elements – a few bedrooms, a large common living room, kitchen, etc. The Court reiterated the fact that “copying” constitutes two separate scenarios – Whether the defendant has, rather than creating it independently, imitated it in toto and whether such copying amounts to wrongful copying or unlawful appropriation. For instance, in the present case, much of the Appellant’s content related to functional considerations and existing design conventions for affordable, suburban, single-family homes. In such a case, to give rise to a potential copyright infringement claim, only a “strikingly similar” subsequent work would suffice.

Determining the Piracy: A Circumstantial Scenario

The Seventh Circuit explained that in absence of evidence of direct copying, the circumstantial evidence should be taken into consideration. To bring a case under this limb, one had to identify whether there was access to the plaintiff’s work by the creators of the subsequent work and if so, then, whether there exists a substantial similarity between the two works. The substantial similarity should not only be limited to the protective elements of the plaintiff’s work but also, any other similarity.

The court in this case used the term “probative similarity” when referring to actual copying and “substantial similarity” when referring to unlawful appropriation. In a case of thin copyright protection, a case of unlawful appropriation requires more than a substantial similarity. Only if a subsequent plan is virtually identical to the original work, it will cause an infringement.

The utility aspect: The Brandir analogy

For instance, if a particular type of architectural detailing is a significant feature of an organization, so much so that it creates an imprint on the minds of the target consumers that such a style is attributable to the Appellant, is that design/style copyrightable? To answer this question the case of Brandir International, Inc. v. Cascade Pacific Lumber Co[2], must be taken into consideration, where the court stated that “if design elements reflect a merger of aesthetic and functional considerations, the artistic aspects of a work cannot be said to be conceptually separable from the utilitarian elements. Conversely, where design elements can be identified as reflecting the designer’s artistic judgment exercised independently of functional influences, conceptual separability exists.

The rule of law, as evidenced from the above precedent states that the copyrightability of work ultimately depends upon the extent to which the work reflects artistic expression and is not restricted by functional considerations. Hence, while considering designs, which have a particular utility in the minds of the customers, the artistic part should be considered separately from the utilitarian part, as, the Copyright Act clearly states that the legal test lies in how the final article is perceived and not how it has evolved at the various stages along the way. Any similarity in the end-product when taken as a whole should be considered.

The Ideal Test(s) for Determination of Ingringement: Scènes à Faire and Merger Doctrine

The determination of piracy and subsequently the legitimacy of a copyright claim has seen a sharp change over a period. There has been a change in the stance of the courts from the Sweat of the Brow system to the Originality Test. Where the former absolved a defendant from a copyright infringement claim based on the evaluation of substantial labour in the development of the subsequent work, without taking into consideration the amount of overlap or the quality of such work, the latter absolved the author of a subsequent work from a potential copyright infringement claim if his work (the subsequent work) enshrines an adequate amount of creativity and diligence.

An extension of the Originality doctrine is seen in a Scene A Faire scenario, which states that when certain similarities are non-avoidable, what needs to be determined is if the depiction pertains to certain things which are extremely common to a particular situation, for e.g., the depiction of police life in the South Bronx will definitely include “drinks, prostitutes, vermin and derelict cars.”[3] Hence, such depictions do not come under the realm of copyright protection.[4]

The court adopted the same analogy in the present scenario, stating that the rooms in the Appellant’s floor plans were rudimentary, commonplace, and standard, largely directed by functionality. For example, the placement of the bedroom, hall, and kitchen did not show an extraneous unique expression of an idea. Hence, they constituted of a scene a faire scenario, which could not be protected.

Expressions and not ideas are protectable. The doctrine of merger prevents the protection of underlying ideas. However, if certain ideas can only be expressed in multiple ways, copyrighting each expression would end up in copyrighting the idea itself, which would run counter to the very basis of copyright protection. Similarly, where the Appellant is the owner of 2500+ floor plans, is it possible for any other Appellant to design a suburban single-family home that is not identical to at least one of these plans?

The court answered in negative and held that if the copyright infringement claim of the Appellant was allowed to succeed, then it would own nearly the entire field of suburban, single-family type homes, which would be a result of anti-competitive practice. Hence, the present plea was not allowed.

A Classic Case of Copyright Trolling

The court called this instance a classic case of a copyright troll. This was because Design Basics, as a matter of practice, had registered copyrights in over thousands of floor plans for single-family tract type suburban homes, which they used for attacking several smaller businesses, using their employees to spawn through the internet in search of targets and slapping on them strategic infringement suits in which the merits were always questionable. This fueled their agenda in securing “prompt settlements with defendants who would prefer to pay modest or nuisance settlements rather than be tied up in expensive litigation.”

The Indian Position on Protection of Architectural Design

Even though courts in India have not taken a similar stand on copyright protection over architectural work yet, a similarly high threshold of originality for protection and enforcement of such works stems from the Copyright Act, 1957 (“the Act”) as well as the Designs Act, 2000. Section 2(b) of the Act defines ‘work of architecture’ as: “any building or structure having an artistic character or design, or any model for such building or structure.”, and Section 2(c)(ii) includes work of architecture under the ambit of artistic work.

Additionally, Section 59 of the Act, restricts remedies in case of “works of architecture” which states that where construction of a building or other structure which infringes or which, if completed would infringe the copyright in some other work has been commenced, the owner of the copyright shall not be entitled to obtain an injunction to restrain the construction of such building or structure or order its demolition. The owner of the copyrighted building cannot claim specific relief and the only remedy available to the copyright owner will be damages and criminal prosecution.

The law corresponding to this is Section 2(d) of the Designs Act, 2000 which allows for designs of buildings to be registered. This provision may prove to be more useful as it allows for mass production of the designs registered under the Designs Act. As for Copyright protection, if a design has been registered under the Copyright Act, as well as the Designs Act, then the copyright ceases to exist if the design is commercially reproduced or reproduced more than fifty times.

Thus, the Copyright Act purports to provide protection to very special architectural works which have an artistic element to them and are not mass-produced to protect the artistic integrity of the work. Hence, commercial rights of architectural work are better protected under the Designs Act which allows for the reproduction of the design multiple times.

Analysis and Conclusion

The Appellate court in the present case concluded that apart from the marking up of the Design Basics floor plan by Signature, there was no evidence of actual copying. Even under the test for circumstantial proof of actual copying, there existed many noteworthy differences between the two works, for instance, the room dimensions, ceiling styles, number of rooms, and exterior dimensions were all different enough to preclude an inference of actual copying as a matter of law. Even though the two plans were similar, they differed in many aspects. Hence, the copyright infringement claim could not subsist.

The United States’ Modicum of Creativity approach is a modern proliferation of the originality test, which delves into the thought process and the judgment involved behind the formulation of subsequent work.[5] However, using this approach in isolation is not enough. Whether the subsequent work is the result of a thought process and adequate judgment should be determined after passing it through the ‘Nichols Abstraction’ test. The Seventh Circuit decision was largely based on the Nichols Abstraction test[6] which narrows down to the product that remains after filtering out all the dissimilarities. The residual product, in this case, that remained after filtering out all the dissimilarities between the two was the main idea behind the works and ideas are not protectable and hence a case of infringement could not be made out.

Copyright trolling is more common in countries that provide escalated damages for infringement and there it needs to be addressed in a stricter manner. In 2015 alone, trolls consumed a whopping 58% of the US federal copyright docket. Clearly, the judiciary plays a very important role in sorting out a troll from a genuine copyright claim. Moreover, the litigation process needs to be cost-effective, which may enable defendants to dispute the claims of a copyright troll more easily. Hence, proper care and caution must be taken while meandering through the trolls.

References: 

[1] Case No. 19-2716 (7th Cir. Apr. 23, 2021)

[2] 200 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 2, 1987)

[3] David Nimmer, Nimmer on Copyright Vol III, (1963).

[4] http://blog.ciprnuals.in/2021/06/from-sweat-of-the-brow-to-nichols-abstraction-a-revisitation-of-the-r-g-anand-precedent-with-its-mature-modern-implications/

[5] Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991).

[6] Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., 45 F.2d 119 (2d Cir. 1930)

 

 

Image Credits: Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Copyright trolling Is more common in countries that provide escalated damages for infringement and there it needs to be addressed in a stricter manner. In 2015 alone, trolls consumed a whopping 58% of the US federal copyright docket. Clearly, the judiciary plays a very important role in sorting out a troll from a genuine copyright claim.

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SC: Consideration Paid for Purchase of Computer Software, Not Royalty, No Obligation on Buyers to Deduct Tax at Source

IN BRIEF:

The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India (SC) has at long last, put to rest the two-decade old controversy in relation to taxability of the consideration paid for purchase of computer software from a non-resident distributor/ manufacturer. The controversy revolved around whether the consideration paid for purchase of the computer software would constitute ‘Royalty’ as per the provisions of section 9(1)(vi) of the Act, read with relevant Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (‘DTAA’). There were divergent views of some High Courts as well as of the Authority for Advance Rulings on this issue, which, thankfully, has now been settled by the Hon’ble SC, against the Revenue and in favour of the taxpayers.

In the case of Engineering Analysis Centre of Excellence Private Limited1 and others (Appellants), the Hon’ble SC has held that the consideration paid for purchase of an off-the- shelf software from a non-resident seller does not tantamount to ‘Royalty’ as per Article 12 of the DTAA and hence there is no obligation on the Indian buyer to deduct tax at source under section 195 of the Income-tax Act, 1961 (‘the Act’), as the distribution agreements/ End-User Licence Agreements (EULAs) do not create any interest or right in such distributors/ end-users which would tantamount to the use of or right to use any copyright.

FACTS OF THE CASE:

The Appellants had imported/ acquired shrink wrapped computer software from non-residents distributor/ manufacturers. While making payment to those non-residents, the Appellants did not deduct tax at source under section 195 of the Act, on the premise that such amounts do not constitute ‘Royalty’; hence are not taxable in India as per the relevant DTAA and accordingly, there could not be any obligation on them to deduct tax at source under section 195 of the Act.

QUESTION BEFORE THE SC:

The key question before the Hon’ble SC was whether there would be any obligation on a resident buyer, acquiring computer software from a non-resident distributor/ manufacturer, to deduct tax at source, under section 195 of the Act, by classifying the consideration paid as ‘Royalty’ under section 9(1)(vi) of the Act, read with Article 12 of the relevant DTAA.

There were various appeals/ questions raised before the Hon’ble SC, which were grouped into four categories:

a) Computer software purchased directly by resident end-users from non-resident suppliers or manufacturers.
b) Resident distributors or resellers purchasing computer software from non-resident suppliers or manufacturers and then reselling the same to resident Indian end-users.
c) Non-resident distributors reselling the computer software to resident Indian distributors or end-users.
d) Computer software embedded into hardware and sold as an integrated unit/equipment by non-resident suppliers to resident Indian distributors or end-users.

APPELLANT’S CONTENTIONS:

The Appellant’s contentions have been summarized below:

  •  Computer software that is imported for onward sale constitutes ‘Goods’.
  • Definition of Royalty as per DTAA did not extend to a derivative product of the copyright. For example, a book or a music CD or software products.
  • Retrospective amendment to section 9(1)(vi) by Finance Act 2012 could not be applied to assessment years under consideration, as the law cannot compel one to do the impossible.
  • Provisions of DTAA would prevail over the provisions of the Act to the extent they are more beneficial to the deductor of tax under section 195 of the Act.
  • Distinguishment can be made between the sale of a copyrighted article v/s. the sale of copyright itself. As per section 14(b) of the Copyright Act, 1957 Act (“CA Act”), ‘Computer Program’ and a ‘copy of Computer Program’ are two distinct subject matters. In the instant case, no copyright was transferred, as the end-user only received a limited license to use the product by itself with no right to reproduce, sub-licence, lease, make copies, etc.
  • It was also contended that explanation 4 to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act would apply only to section 9(1)(vi)(b) of the Act and would not expand the definition of Royalty as contained in explanation 2 to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act. Further, reference was made to Circular No. 10/2002 issued by Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), wherein, ‘remittance for royalties’ and ‘supply for computer software’ were addressed as separate distinct payments, the former attracting the ‘royalty’ provision and the latter taxable as business profits.
  • Based on the doctrine of first sale/ principle of exhaustion, it was argued that the foreign supplier’s distribution rights would not extend to sale of copies of the work to other persons beyond the first sale.

REVENUE’S CONTENTION:

The Revenue’s contentions have been summarized below:

  • The primary contention of the Revenue was that what was transferred in the transaction between the parties was copyright and accordingly the payment would constitute Royalty and Indian user/ importer would be required to deduct tax at source.
  • It was argued that explanation 2(v) to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act applies to payments to a non-resident by way of royalty for the use of or the right to use any copyright. Reliance was placed on the language of explanation 2(v) and it was stressed that the words “in respect of” have to be given a wide meaning.
  • The Revenue further contended that since adaptation of software could be made, albeit for installation and use on a particular computer, copyright was parted with by the original owner.
  • It was further pointed out that the Indian Government has expressed its reservations on the OECD Commentary dealing with the parting of copyright and royalty.
  • It was argued that in some of the EULAs, it was clearly stated that what was licensed to the distributor/end-user by the non-resident would not amount to a sale, thereby making it clear that what was transferred was not goods.
  • It was further argued that explanation 4 of section 9(1)(vi) of the Act existed with retrospective effect from 1976 and accordingly the Appellants ought to have deducted the tax at source even prior to the year 2012.
  • The Revenue placed reliance on the ruling of PILCOM v. CIT, West Bengal- VII, 2020 SCC Online SC 426 [“PILCOM”]2, which dealt with section 194E of the Act, for the proposition that tax has to be deducted at source irrespective of whether tax is otherwise payable by the non-resident assessee.
  • With respect to the doctrine of first sale/principle of exhaustion, it was argued that it would have no application since it is not statutorily recognised in section 14(b)(ii) of the CA Act. Accordingly, it was contended that when distributors of copyrighted software ‘license’ or ‘sell’ such computer software to end-users, there would be a parting of a right or interest in copyright; in as much as, such “license” or sale would be hit by section 14(b)(ii) of the CA Act.

THE RULING:

  • Provisions of CA Act

The Hon’ble SC placed reliance on the provisions of the CA Act and observed as under:

The expression ‘copyright’ means the “exclusive right” to do or authorise the doing of certain acts “in respect of a work”. In the case of a computer program, section 14(b) read with section 14(a) of the CA Act prescribes certain acts as to how the exclusive rights with the owner of the copyright may be parted with. Thus, the nature of rights prescribed under section 14(a) and section 14(b) of the CA Act would be referred to as “copyright”, which would include the right to reproduce the work in any material form, issue copies of the work to the public, perform the work in public, or make translations or adaptations of the work.

Section 16 of the CA Act states that no person shall be entitled to copyright otherwise than under the provisions of the CA Act or any other law for the time being in force. Accordingly, it is held that the expression ‘copyright’ has to be understood only as is stated in section 14 of the CA Act.

On perusal of the distribution agreements, the Hon’ble SC observed that what is granted to the distributor is only a non-exclusive, non-transferable licence to resell computer software and it was expressly stipulated that no copyright and no right to reproduce the computer program, in any manner, is transferred either to the distributor or to the ultimate end user.

It further observed that the ‘license’ that is granted under EULA, conferring no proprietary interest on the licensee, is not a licence that transfers an interest in all or any of the rights contained in sections 14(a) and 14(b) of the CA Act. The SC held that there must be a transfer by way of license or otherwise, of all or any rights mentioned in section 14(b) read with section 14(a) of the CA Act.

  • Sale of Goods

The SC further observed that what is ‘licenced’ by the non-resident supplier/ distributor is in fact a sale of a physical object, which contains an embedded computer program and thereby held the same as “sale of goods” by placing reliance on the ruling of Hon’ble SC in the case of Tata Consultancy Services v. State of A.P., 2005 (1) SCC 308.3

  • Royalty in the DTAA vs the Act

It was observed that DTAA provides an exhaustive definition of ‘Royalty’ as it uses the expression “means” whereas the definition of ‘Royalty’ contained in the Act is wider in nature. Accordingly, Article 12 of the DTAA defining the term ‘Royalty’ would be relevant to determine taxability under DTAA, as it is more beneficial to the assessee as compared to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act.

It was further observed that explanation 4 to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act (retrospectively introduced vide Finance Act, 2012) is not clarificatory of the position as of 1 June 1976, but it expands the existing position and hence it does not clarify the legal position as it always stood.

The SC relied on two legal maxims, lex non-cogit ad impossibilia, i.e., the law does not demand the impossible and impotentia excusat legem, i.e., when there is a disability that makes it impossible to obey the law and further relied on various judicial precedents and held that any ‘person’ cannot be expected to do the impossible and accordingly the expanded definition of Royalty inserted by explanation 4 to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act cannot apply retrospectively, as such explanation was not actually and factually in the statute.

  • PILCOM Ruling

It was observed that the PICLOM ruling was in respect of section194E of the Act which deals with a different set of TDS provisions, without any reference to chargeability to tax under the Act. As already held in GE Technology4, deduction of tax under section 195 can be made only if the non-resident assessee is liable to pay tax under the provisions of the Act and accordingly it had no application to the present facts of the case.

  • Doctrine of First Sale/ Principle of Exhaustion

The SC relied on various judicial precedents to explain the concept of the doctrine of first sale/ principal of exhaustion, which enables free trade in material objects on which copies of protected works have been fixed and put into circulation, with the right holder’s consent. The said principle was introduced in the CA Act, vide amendment made in the year 1999.

Based on the above principle, it is held that the distribution rights subsist with the owner of the copyright, to the extent such copies are not already in circulation. Thus, it is the exclusive right of the owner to sell or to give on commercial rental or offer for sale or for commercial rental, ‘any copy of computer program’. The distributor who resells the computer program to the end-user cannot fall within its scope.

  • Interpretation of treaties and OECD Commentary

India has reserved its right under the OECD Commentary with respect to taxation of royalties and fees for technical services. However, in this regard, the SC has noted that, after India took such positions, no bilateral amendment was made by India and the other Contracting States to change the definition of royalties. Accordingly, the OECD commentary would only have persuasive value with respect to the interpretation of the term ‘Royalties.

  • CBDT Circular No. 10/2202 dated 9 October 2002

The SC further referred to the above-mentioned Circular, wherein the Revenue itself has made a distinction between royalties and remittance for the supply of computer software (which is treated as business profits and taxability depends upon the existence of permanent establishment in India).

  • Ruling

In light of the aforementioned reasoning, the Hon’ble SC held that the consideration paid for the purchase of an ‘off-the-shelf’ software from a non-resident seller did not amount to ‘Royalty’ as per Article 12 of DTAA, as the distribution agreements/ EULAs did not create any interest or right in such distributors/ end-users, which tantamounted to the use of or right to use any copyright. Since the amount was not chargeable to tax in India, there was no obligation on the Indian resident buyer to deduct tax at source under section 195 of the Act.

FM COMMENTS:

The taxation of royalty has always been a vexed issue in the Indian context. There have been conflicting rulings on the issue relating to the characterization of payments towards the purchase of computer software. This is indeed a welcome ruling, which has finally put to rest a long litigation.

However, it is pertinent to note that the Finance Act, 2020 has introduced the provisions of ‘equalisation levy’ leviable on a non-resident e-commerce operator from e-commerce supply of services. These transactions are exempted from Income-tax under section 10(50) of the Act.

Further, vide, Finance Bill 2021, it has been clarified that exemption under section 10(50) will not apply to royalty or fees for technical services, that are taxable under the Act read with the DTAA. Hence, as a corollary, it may be deduced that, based on this SC ruling, if a non-resident takes shelter under the DTAA, for payments that are made to it for purchase of computer software, the non-resident could still be liable to pay equalisation levy on the satisfaction of certain prescribed conditions. It is therefore advised that going forward, such issues are analysed carefully and separately, before arriving at any conclusion on the effective taxability that arises. Additionally, in cases where the payments are being made to parties residing in non-DTAA countries, suitable arguments would require to be made, on a case-to-case basis using this decision as a persuasive tool.

1 Civil Appeal Nos 8733 – 8734 of 2018
2 [2020] 271 Taxman 200 (SC)
3 [2004] 271 ITR 401
4 [2010] 327 ITR 456
This article expounds a recent decision regarding tax liability on the purchase of computer software from a non-resident distributor/ manufacturer.

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