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Corporate Officers Held Personally Liable for Copyright Infringement

Lawrence Stanley
Sept. 13, 2013

Universal Furniture International, Inc. v. Paul and Leonard Frankel, Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit 2013

In Universal Furniture International, Inc. v. Collezione Europa USA, Inc., 618 F.3d 417 (4th Cir. 2010), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court judgment against Collezione Europa USA, finding it liable for copyright infringement and awarding the plaintiff $11 million in damages. Collezione declared bankruptcy shortly after the judgment was rendered, so Universal pursued Collezione’s owners and managers, Paul and Leonard Frankel. Leonard defaulted, while Paul attempted to contest his liability.

Collezione was in the business of producing “knock-offs” of others’ furniture designs and offering them at lower prices. The Frankels were Collezione’s only corporate officers. Paul was Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer, and was responsible for various financial aspects of the business and certain distribution matters. In the trial against Collezione, he testified that he was aware of the cease-and-desist letter sent by Universal and “told his brother that it would be a good idea to redesign the furniture.” Paul was also present when
a photographer took pictures of the apparently-Collezione-but-actually-Universal furniture, and that he received those pictures and distributed them to salespeople (although he maintains that he was not aware of any intellectual property violations). Finally, Paul was involved in the decision to hold orders during the redesign of the furniture to give customers a chance to purchase the new design, and personally contacted at least one of those potential buyers. He had responsibility for the flow of Collezione product, and as a co-owner of the business, he was generally familiar with its operations.
Holding that Paul either knew, should have known or willfully blinded himself to knowing of the infringements, the District Court found that the facts were sufficient to justify finding Paul directly or vicariously liable. The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

“It is copyright infringement not only to copy another’s design, but to authorize distribution of such copies to the public for sale,” the Court noted. Furthermore, a party is guilty of vicarious infringement if he possessed (a) the right and ability to supervise the infringing activity and (b) an obvious and direct financial interest in the exploited copyrighted materials.” Most corporate officers will, ipso facto, have such a direct financial interest. As the Court observed in this case, Paul “had every incentive to see that his company successfully marketed its knock-off furniture, and to ensure that it did so without committing copyright infringement. His failure to prevent infringing distribution thus leaves him at least vicariously liable for that infringement.”

The latter sentence is phrased rather oddly, but what the 4th Circuit meant is that Paul was involved in making calculated decisions that the furniture his company manufactured and sold was close enough to pass as a knock-off, but not so close that it would be infringing. For that reason, Paul was found to have had “knowledge” (i.e., that he knew or should have known) of the infringements. Simply put, a person’s belief that his or her copy or imitation does not infringe on the original work is not a defense to copyright infringement.

You’ll find the 4th Circuit’s August 20th 2013 decision [] here.

[Note that the decision is designated as “Unpublished.” This means that the judges have, for some reason, decided to give it less value as binding precedent and that the decision will not appear in the hardbound official reporters published by the West Publishing Co. However, the Internet has really changed the meaning of “Unpublished.” Today “unpublished” decisions can be readily found online (including Google Scholar) and are even occasionally posted on federal court websites. Prior to January 1, 2007, the federal courts had the discretion of barring parties from using unpublished decisions in their legal arguments. Once that discretion was removed by the enactment of [] Fed. R. App. P. 32.1, the party citing the “unpublished” opinion simply needed to furnish a copy of the decision so the judge’s clerk needn’t go looking for it. For more on the controversy over “unpublished” opinions, see “[] Non-publication of legal opinions in the United States” at Wikipedia.]