"Case Study: An Introduction to Copyright on the Internet, Playboy
Playboy Enterprises, Inc.--yes, that Playboy--is one of the more
active participants in Internet law, filing numerous lawsuits
against people and companies that use the well-known adult
entertainment publisher's intellectual property in cyberspace
without obtaining permission. Intellectual property includes
copyrights (such as photographs of nude models) and trademarks
(such as the "Playboy" and "Playmate" names); clearly, Playboy has
a lot to protect online.
There's no denying that, on the Internet, the sex industry is quite
popular. And in many ways the sex industry has been at the
forefront of important Internet developments, including online
payment systems, affiliate programs, innovative advertising
techniques, and more. Playboy is among the tamer players in the
online adult world, but its name is certainly among the best known,
and it has a large library of high-quality content--which is
important for the success of any publisher, particularly on the
Web. But popularity has a downside, too. While imitation may be the
greatest form of flattery, Playboy (like other publishers) is not
in business to give away its content for free. So, when individuals
and other companies have copied Playboy's photos for their own
websites--either by scanning images from the printed Playboy
magazine or by copying images from Playboy's site--Playboy has not
hesitated to enforce its rights.
One case in particular is especially interesting and enlightening
and serves as a great introduction to the issue of copyright law
and the Internet. The following facts are based on an opinion
written by a federal judge in California and Playboy's allegations
in a case decided in 1998.1
In the case, Playboy v. Sanfilippo, Playboy filed a lawsuit against
Francesco Sanfilippo and his company, Five Senses, for copyright
infringement. According to Playboy, Sanfilippo operated a website
through which he provided and sold access to thousands of
copyrighted photographs owned by Playboy. Sanfilippo's website,
like many adult sites with pornographic content, was divided into
public and private sections. The public, or free, section
advertised images available in the private area, which was
accessible to those who bought a password from Sanfilippo.
Playboy said it sent Sanfilippo a "cease and desist" letter in
October 1996. These letters are often sent by copyright owners or
their lawyers to people or companies who they believe have
committed copyright infringement. The letters, sometimes known as
"demand letters," typically inform a person or company that it is
committing copyright infringement and demand that the action come
to an immediate stop. Sending a cease and desist letter is usually,
but not always, a wise precursor to filing a lawsuit, because doing
so often scares the recipient into complying without incurring the
costs, angst, and uncertainty of courtroom litigation.
Two days later, Playboy's attorney sent another demand letter to
Sanfilippo. According to Playboy, Sanfilippo immediately
acknowledged that some of the images on his website were scanned
directly from Playboy's magazine; he did not dispute that Playboy
owned the copyright in the images; and he agreed to promptly remove
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