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Nautical Solutions Mktg., Inc. v. Boats.com: No Copyright Protection for Facts

A Florida federal court has considered a copyright infringement lawsuit over one website's copying of yacht listing information from another website.

Boats.com ("Boats") operated a website known as "Yachtworld.com" ("Yachtworld") since 1995. Yachtworld is a publicly available website where yacht brokers post their yacht listings for sale. In 2001, Nautical Solutions Marketing, Inc. ("NSM") created a website known as "Yachtbroker.com" ("Yachtbroker"). Both sites posted listing information about various boats for sale containing information about listed yachts, such as listing price, manufacturer, and various features of the yacht.

Yachtbroker offered two services on its website, both of which drew information from Yachtworld. "Boat Rover" ("Program") was a computer "spidering" software program which acquired information from certain Internet websites containing information about yachts for sale. The Program would obtain facts from these websites by copying the webpage containing the yacht listing, removing the facts such as yacht price on the page and placing them into its own searchable database, after which the copied webpage was discarded. The Program's copying, extracting, and discarding of webpages took place in a matter of seconds.

Yachtbroker also offered a "valet service" ("Service") on its website, which was a service where Yachtbroker would move yacht listing information from one site to another at the request of a yacht owner. The process of moving the content from one site to another would involve the "cutting and pasting" of information from the other websites into Yachtbroker's database. The "cutting and pasting" only involved factual information about the yachts or pictures of the yacht.

Yachtbroker filed a lawsuit against Boats, alleging defamation and seeking a judicial declaration that it did not violate Yachtworld's copyrights through its copying of the information posted on Yachtworld's website. A trial was held on the defamation allegations, and a jury returned a verdict in favor of Yachtbroker, awarding Yachtbroker a total of $300,000. The court now considered whether Yachtbroker's actions constituted copyright infringement.

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled that Yachtbroker's actions did not constitute copyright infringement. A copyright is a right granted by federal law which gives the creators of particular works the right to control the copying of their works for a specific time period. Copyright protection is available as soon as a work is created in a fixed form, and electronic databases, like a MLS database, are entitled to copyright protection. Click here to learn more about the copyright protections available for MLSs. However, factual information, like names and addresses, is not entitled to copyright protection.

The court first considered whether the Program's momentary copying of Yachtworld's webpages violated the federal copyright laws. The court ruled that "momentary copying" of the webpages for the extraction of yacht facts constituted a fair use of the information. Thus, the court ruled that the Program's momentary copying did not violate the copyright laws.

The court examined Yachtbroker's “cutting and pasting” of Yachtworld's information as part of the Service. Once again, the court found that the information being copied by Yachtbroker was not entitled to copyright protection and so the court ruled that the copying of Yachtworld's content did not violate the copyright laws.

The court rejected Yachtworld's argument that the headings under which it organized its information about yachts were copyrightable, determining that the headings were not entitled to copyright protection because there are so few ways of organizing yacht listings that the headings merged with the idea of listing a yacht for sale. Put another way, the categories Yachtworld used to organize its yacht listing information would be obvious to anyone attempting to organize yacht listing information and so the headings were not entitled to copyright protection.

Yachtworld next argued Yachtbroker had copied the unique "look and feel" of Yachtworld's website and so had infringed Yachtworld's copyright. The court rejected this argument because the two websites were laid out in different formats and so had a different "look and feel". For example, the listing information appeared in different places on the two websites, with a picture of the yacht for sale appearing on the right side of the listing information on one but on the left side on the other site. The court determined that, to the extent that the websites had similarities, it was due to the noncopyrightable facts contained on both websites. Thus, the court rejected Yachtworld's "look and feel" infringement argument.

Finally, the court considered Yachtworld's argument that its website was entitled to copyright protection because it was a compilation. To allege an infringement of a compilation, the court stated that the alleging party must show that an identical copy of the compilation was made. Since Yachtbroker, as discussed above, used a different format to present its information and was merely extracting nonprotectible facts from Yachtworld's site, the court ruled that there was no infringement of Yachtworld's copyright. Thus, the court ruled that Yachtbroker had not infringed upon Yachtworld's copyrights, and so judgment was entered in favor of Yachtbroker.

Nautical Solutions Mktg., Inc. v. Boats.com, No. 8:02-CV-760-T-23TGW, 2004 WL 783121 (M.D. Fla. Apr. 1, 2004). [This is a citation to a Westlaw document. Westlaw is a subscription, online legal research service. If an official reporter citation should become available for this case, the citation will be updated to reflect this information].

Editor's Note: Legal Affairs believes this decision is based on a questionable application of precedent. The cited precedent supports the premise that the copying of a copyrighted compilation to extract unprotected facts as a step in the process of creating a non-competing product is permitted as a fair use of the copyrighted work. However, in this case the copying of the compilation to extract the unprotected facts was undertaken to create a competing product. The cited precedent does not support the court's conclusion.

Second, MLSs and associations can protect their data by including in the site’s terms and conditions of access a prohibition on removal of data by "spidering" programs or other such programs. Indeed, Yachtworld has publicly stated its intention to revise its terms and conditions in order to prevent in the future copying like that undertaken by Yachtbroker in this case.