For Criminal Copyright Infringement You Must Know That Act Is Unlawful

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a criminal copyright infringement case found that “willfully” under the Copyright Act required actual knowledge of the illegality of the act, and to “knowingly” traffic counterfeit labels required knowledge that the labels were counterfeit.  U.S. v. Liu, Case No. 10-10613 (9th Cir. October 1, 2013) (available here).  Defendant Liu appealed his criminal conviction for copyright infringement and trafficking in counterfeit labels.  Liu’s company, Super DVD, commercially copied CDs and DVDs without permission from the copyright holders.  The Appeals Court vacated Liu’s convictions and remanded, finding that the lower court had improperly instructed the jury.

The issue was whether Liu acted “willfully” and “knowingly.”  “We hold that the term ‘willfully’ requires the government to prove that a defendant knew he was acting illegally rather than simply that he knew he was making copies. Similarly, to ‘knowingly’ traffic in counterfeit labels requires knowledge that the labels were counterfeit.” Liu, Slip Op. P. 3.  Liu’s commercial replication of the CDs and DVDs is different than an individual “burning” recorded content onto a blank CD or DVD.  Liu would take pre-recorded discs that had their content stamped onto them, which requires a molding machine and a stamper.  The creation of a CD stamper is called “mastering.”

In 2003, federal agents executed a search warrant on Liu’s Super DVD warehouse.  The search resulted in the discovery of thousands of unauthorized DVDs and CDs.  Liu testified that Super DVD did manufacture copies of the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” for a company called R&E Trading.  R&E had given Super DVD a stamper with the name “Tiger” on it, and it was only later that Liu realized R&E did not have the rights to duplicate the movie.  He denied knowledge and involvement in replicating the other works found in the warehouse.  Liu was charged with and convicted on three counts of criminal copyright infringement under 17 U.S.C. § 506(a)(1)(A) and 18 U.S.C. § 2319(b)(1), and one count of trafficking in counterfeit labels under 18 U.S.C. § 2318(a).  He was sentenced to four years in prison and three years of supervised release.

Liu requested a jury instruction mimicking the language of 17 U.S.C. § 506(a)(2), that “[e]vidence of reproduction or distribution of a copyrighted work, by itself, shall not be sufficient to establish willful infringement of a copyright.”  17 U.S.C. § 506(a)(2).  This language was not included in the government’s proposed jury instruction, although the government informed the lower court that it had no problem with Liu’s requested jury instruction.  The night before closing arguments, the lower court emailed out a draft of the jury instructions.  The next morning, the court stated that it made some unsubstantial changes to the jury instructions.  However, the Ninth Circuit determined that the changes were substantive.  For example, the court added a definition of the term “knowingly.”  The lower court defined “knowingly” as follows: “An act is done ‘knowingly’ if the Defendant is aware of the act and does not act through ignorance, mistake or accident. The government is not required to prove that the defendant knew that his act was unlawful. You may consider evidence of the Defendant’s words, acts, or omissions, along with all the other evidence, in deciding whether the defendant acted knowingly.”  Liu, Slip Op. P. 9.  The lower court did not allow objections to the jury instructions.

The Ninth Circuit noted that the term “willfully” is ambiguous.  “To infringe willfully could simply mean to intentionally commit the act that constitutes infringement. Alternatively, it could mean that the defendant must act with a bad purpose or evil motive in the sense that there was an intentional violation of a known legal duty.”  Liu, Slip Op. P. 12 (internal citations omitted).  Liu was charged with criminal copyright infringement, and therefore, the Ninth Circuit determined, “willful” infringement required the government to prove that Liu acted with knowledge that his conduct was illegal.  In other words, “willfully” infringing on a copyright under the Copyright Act § 506(a) means “voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.” Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 201 (1991) (internal quotation marks omitted).  The Ninth Circuit supported its reasoning by stating that in order to infringe a copyright, one must actually copy the protected work.  Thus, if willfulness under § 506(a) was met by an intent to copy, there would be no difference between criminal and civil copyright liability in most cases.

In this case, the parties agreed to include a jury instruction that evidence of a reproduction of a copyrighted work was not, by itself, sufficient to establish willfulness.  However, the lower court failed to include this language.  The lower court defined willful infringement but omitted the knowledge component, thereby instructing the jury to use the civil liability standard for copyright infringement and not the criminal liability standard.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that this error was not harmless.  Liu’s state of mind was critical to his criminal convictions.  As a result, the Ninth Circuit vacated Liu’s convictions and sentence for criminal copyright infringement, and remanded them to the lower court.

Liu also challenged the jury instructions on the count for trafficking in counterfeit labels, which required that Liu acted “knowingly.”  “Like ‘willfully,’ the word ‘knowingly’ is susceptible to more than one meaning in this context. It could mean either that the defendant knew that he was trafficking or that he knew that the labels were counterfeit. We hold that ‘knowingly’ in this context means the latter, and thus the government must prove that Liu knew the labels were counterfeit.”  Liu, Slip Op. P. 21.  The lower court’s jury instruction included a statement that instructed the jury that the government did not have to prove that Liu knew his act was unlawful.  Instead, the lower court instructed the jury that Liu only needed to know that he trafficked the counterfeit labels.  “This instruction was at best ambiguous as to whether Liu needed to know that the labels were counterfeit or merely needed to know that he trafficked in labels that later turned out to be counterfeit—a strict liability standard.”  Liu, Slip Op. P. 24.  As a result, the lower court’s error was not harmless.  The Ninth Circuit vacated and remanded Liu’s conviction and sentence for trafficking in counterfeit labels.

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