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In the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the existence of a license, exclusive or nonexclusive, creates an affirmative defense to a claim of copyright infringement. In other words, under Seventh Circuit copyright law, a plaintiff only needs to show that the defendant has used her property; the burden of proving that the use was authorized falls squarely on the defendant. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), 17 U.S.C.S. § 1201 et seq., however, defines circumvention as an activity undertaken without the authority of the copyright owner. 17 U.S.C.S. § 1201(a)(3)(A). The plain language of the statute therefore requires a plaintiff alleging circumvention (or trafficking) to prove that the defendant's access was unauthorized--a significant burden where the copyright laws authorize consumers to use a copy of software embedded in items that they purchased. The premise underlying this initial assignment of burden is that the copyright laws authorize members of the public to access a work, but not to copy it. The law therefore places the burden of proof on the party attempting to establish that the circumstances of its case deviate from these normal expectations; defendants must prove authorized copying and plaintiffs must prove unauthorized access.
Chamberlain sued Skylink, alleging violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA"). The technology at issue was a copyrighted "rolling code" computer program that constantly changed the transmitter signal needed to open a garage door with the owner's garage door opener (GDO). Skylink's product was a transmitter that activated the owner's GDO using this rolling code. Chamberlain alleged that because its opener and transmitter both incorporate computer programs protected by copyright and because rolling codes are a "technological measure" that "controls access" to those programs, Skylink violated the provisions of the DMCA that prohibit trafficking in circumvention of devices. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Skylink. Chamberlain appealed.
Did Skylink violate the anti-trafficking provisions of the DMCA?
The appellate court held that Skylink's accused device enabled only uses that copyright law explicitly authorized, and was therefore presumptively legal. Chamberlain neither proved nor alleged a connection between Skylink's accused circumvention device and the protections that the copyright laws afforded the owner that were capable of overcoming that presumption. The district court analyzed Chamberlain's allegations in precisely the appropriate manner--a narrow focus on Skylink's behavior, intent, and product within the broader context of long-standing expectations throughout the industry. The district court granted competitor's summary judgment motion because the owner failed to meet its burden on the fourth element, the lack of authorization. The owner, however, also failed to show the necessary fifth element of its claim, the critical nexus between access and protection.