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Court observers saw Spanski Enterprises v. Polska as a copyright stand-off.
In one corner of Poland, Telewizja Polska was broadcasting television episodes on the internet for on-demand users. In another corner of New York City, lawyers discovered by downloading the episodes that the programs violated U.S. copyright law.
The controversy made it to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where the judges resolved it. TV Polska owes the copyright holders more than $3 million.
While lawyers, broadcasters, and television and movie moguls watched, the appeals court considered the opposing arguments. The defendant said it did nothing wrong because U.S. Copyright law doesn't apply in Poland. The plaintiff said 51 episodes were available on-demand in America, where copyright still means something.
The case turned, in part, on whether the defendant "volitionally acted" to make the infringing episodes accessible to users in the United States. Under a previous agreement between the parties, the episodes were supposed to be geoblocked in the United States and Canada.
The DC Circuit said it didn't matter whether the defendant acted "volitionally." The Copyright Act grants the holder the "exclusive right" to "transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work," the appeals court said.
When TV Polska made the episodes available online, the judges said, it violated the plaintiff's public performance right. For those violations, the appellate panel affirmed a $3.06 million judgment against the television company.
Steven Seidenberg, a copyright attorney and writer, said the case created a legal dilemma. If the court had ruled for Telewizja Polska, pirates would have a roadmap for streaming copyrighted works into the U.S.
"But if the court finds Telewizja committed infringement simply because the Polish company put online works that could be accessed in the U.S., the court will apply U.S. copyright law in an extraterritorial manner that will create problems around the globe," he wrote for IP-Watch.
The DC Circuit didn't see it that way. The judges said "where a foreign broadcaster uploads copyrighted content to its website and directs that content onto a computer screen in the United States at a user's request, the broadcaster commits an actionable domestic violation of the Copyright Act."