Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

This month, an Illinois district court considered another in the series of web scraping disputes that have been working their way through our courts.  In this dispute, CouponCabin, Inc. v. PriceTrace, LLC, No. 18-7525 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 11, 2019), CouponCabin alleged that a competitor, PriceTrace, scraped coupon codes from CouponCabin’s website without authorization and displayed them on its own website.

After discovering PriceTrace’s scraping activities, CouponCabin sent PriceTrace a cease and desist letter demanding that PriceTrace stop scraping data from CouponCabin’s website.  CouponCabin alleged that PriceTrace continued to access and scrape data from CouponCabin’s website even after the C&D letter was sent. As a result, CouponCabin brought several causes of action against PriceTrace, including claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), tortious interference and breach of contract.

The court found that CouponCabin’s C&D letter had revoked PriceTrace’s access to its site and that PriceTrace’s alleged continued access to the website plausibly stated a violation of the CFAA’s “unauthorized access” provision (18 U.S.C. §1030(a)(2)(C)).  Ultimately, however, the court dismissed the CFAA claims with leave to amend, due to plaintiff’s failure to plead the requisite amount of damage or loss as required to maintain a civil action under the CFAA.

“CouponCabin is simply alleging that PriceTrace was able to circumvent CouponCabin’s website security, with no allegation that such evasion impairs or harm the website. Absent allegation of impairment, CouponCabin has merely alleged that PriceTrace accessed CouponCabin’s website without authorization.”

A recent dispute between an advertiser AXTS Inc. (“AXTS”) and a video production company GY6vids (“GY6”) produced an interesting issue involving the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) – that is, whether an entity that allegedly overloaded another company’s YouTube channel content with a flood of “dislikes” following a contractual dispute is liable under the CFAA for accessing a protected computer “without authorization.”  (AXTS Inc. v. GY6vids LLC, No. 18-00821 (D. Ore. Oct. 24, 2018)).

We have been closely monitoring the evolving state of the law regarding CFAA liability for certain commercial web scraping and related practices.  The instant case between AXTS and GY6 is a little different in that the claim did not arise from AXTS’s alleged access to video content stored on GY6’s network, but publically-accessible videos stored on a third-party’s (e.g., YouTube) servers.   

UPDATE: On November 1, 2018, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s amended complaint (which apparently dropped the CFAA claim and asserted Lanham Act and DMCA claims).  Specifically, the plaintiff asserted, among other things, that defendant removed the copyright management information (CMI) from plaintiff’s listings and website source code. The court ruled that plaintiff failed to show that the generic copyright notice at the footer of each web page covered the listings and images that the defendant allegedly scraped, noting that “websites generally do not claim ownership or authorship over an image just because the image appears on the website.” With no evidence that the defendant removed or altered any CMI from the listings it allegedly scraped, the court held that the DMCA claim failed. Following the filing of a second amended complaint, the court, on March 22, 2019, dismissed the action, with prejudice. Regarding the DMCA claim, the court stated that it was “simply not reasonable to expect a viewer of the website to understand that each photograph was subject to protection when there is nothing near the photographs indicating who owns them. Had Alan Ross intended to assert copyright protection for the photographs it owned, it should have included a watermark or other mark on or near the listings, rather than a general copyright notice at the bottom of the page that does not indicate to what it refers.” The court ruled that a general copyright notice on the bottom of a webpage is not CMI “conveyed in connection with” photographs and listings contained on those webpages. Lastly, the court held that the link to plaintiff’s website terms was also not CMI “conveyed in connection with the work” because the terms were located on a separate page than the listings that were allegedly scraped and did not expressly state ownership of the images and listings, merely that unauthorized copying is prohibited.  Following the dismissal, the plaintiff filed a notice of appeal to the Seventh Circuit.

This past week, an Illinois district court dismissed, with leave to amend, claims relating to a competitor’s alleged scraping of sales listings from a company’s website for use on its own site. (Alan Ross Machinery Corp. v. Machinio Corp., No. 17-3569 (N.D. Ill. July 9, 2018)).

The court dismissed a federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) claim that the defendant accessed the plaintiff’s servers “without authorization,” finding that the plaintiff failed to plead with specificity any damage or loss related to the scraping and did not allege that the unlawful access resulted in monetary damages of $5,000 or more as required to maintain a civil action under the CFAA.  In the court’s view, the “mere copying of electronic information from a computer system is not enough to satisfy the CFAA’s damage requirement.”  The court also dismissed plaintiff’s breach of contract claims, concluding that defendant did not have notice of the plaintiff’s website terms and conditions based upon an unenforceable browsewrap agreement.

UPDATE:  On October 22, 2018, the court denied the defendant’s CEO’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Subsequently, on January 2, 2019, the parties settled the matter and stipulated to a dismissal of the case.

This past week, a Texas district court denied a bid from a web service for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to enjoin a competitor that allegedly scraped a large amount of proprietary data from its closed site via several user accounts. (BidPrime, LLC v. SmartProcure, Inc., No. 18-478 (W.D. Tex. June 18, 2018)). While tempting to draw a general legal conclusion about the permissibility of scraping from this decision, the decision was in fact based on the judgement of the court that scraping was unlikely to continue during the pendency of the litigation.

Nonetheless, the dispute highlights the host of legal issues that can arise when an entity accesses a website or database to scrape data for competitive or other reasons using user credentials or fake accounts or proxies to mask its true identity. For example, the plaintiff BidPrime, LCC (“BidPrime”) sought injunctive relief based upon claims under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and state law counterpart, state trade secret law, and breach of contract, among others. Whether such claims are viable are of course dependent on the specific facts and circumstances of the dispute, the restrictions contained in the website terms of use, what countermeasures and demands the website owner made to the web scraper to prevent unwanted access, and the state of the current interpretation of applicable law. This decision did not analyze these factors beyond concluding that ongoing scraping was unlikely.

Such Scraping “Plausibly Falls within the Ambit of the First Amendment”

The Ninth Circuit is currently considering the appeal of the landmark hiQ decision, where a lower court had granted an injunction that limited the applicability of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) to the blocking of an entity engaging in commercial data scraping of a public website.  While we wait for that decision, there has been another fascinating development regarding scraping, this time involving a challenge to the CFAA brought by academic researchers.  In Sandvig v. Sessions, No. 16-1368 (D.D.C. Mar. 30, 2018), a group of professors and a media organization, which are conducting research into whether the use of algorithms by various housing and employment websites to automate decisions produces discriminatory effects, brought a constitutional challenge alleging that the potential threat of criminal prosecution under the CFAA for accessing a website “without authorization” (based upon the researchers’ data scraping done in violation of the site’s terms of use) violates their First Amendment rights.

In a preliminary decision, a district court held that the plaintiffs have standing and allowed their as-applied constitutional challenge to the CFAA to go forward with regard to the activity of creating fictitious accounts on web services for research purposes.  The decision contains vivid language on the nature of the public internet as well as how the plaintiffs’ automated collection and use of publicly available web data would not violate the CFAA’s “access” provision even if a website’s terms of service prohibits such automated access (at least with respect to the facts of this case, which involves academic or journalistic research as opposed to commercial or competitive activities).

UPDATE:  On February 22, 2018, the district court granted 3taps’s motion to relate its action to the ongoing hiQ v. LinkedIn litigation. This motion was based upon a local Northern District of California rule that holds that cases should be related when the actions concern substantially the same parties, transaction or event, and there would be an “unduly burdensome duplication of labor…or conflicting results” if the cases were heard before different judges.  As a result, the 3taps case, over the opposition of LinkedIn, was reassigned to Judge Edward Chen, who also presided over the lower court proceedings in the hiQ v. LinkedIn litigation.

In the latest development in the legal controversy over scraping, 3taps, Inc. (“3taps”), a data aggregator and “exchange platform” for developers, filed suit against LinkedIn seeking a declaratory judgment that 3taps would not be in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) if it accesses and collects publicly-available data from LinkedIn’s website. (3Taps Inc. v. LinkedIn Corp., No. 18-00855 (C.D. Cal. filed Feb. 8, 2018)).  The basis of 3Taps’s complaint is last year’s hotly-debated California district court ruling (hiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn, Corp., 2017 WL 3473663 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 14, 2017)), where the court granted a preliminary injunction compelling LinkedIn to disable any technical measures it had employed to block a data analytics company from scraping the publicly available data on LinkedIn’s website. The hiQ ruling essentially limited the applicability of the CFAA as a tool against the scraping of publicly-available website data.  [For an analysis of the hiQ lower court decision, please read the Client Alert on our website].

A California district court issued an important opinion in a dispute between a ticket sales platform and a ticket broker that employed automated bots to purchase tickets in bulk. (Ticketmaster L.L.C. v. Prestige Entertainment, Inc., No. 17-07232 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 31, 2018)). For those of us who have been following the evolution of the law around the use of automation to scrape websites, this case is interesting. The decision interprets some of the major Ninth Circuit decisions of recent memory on liability for web scraping.  Indeed, two weeks ago, we wrote about a case in which the Ninth Circuit interpreted certain automated downloading practices under the CFAA and CDAFA. Also, we wrote about and are awaiting the decision in the hiQ v. LinkedIn appeal before the Ninth Circuit. Also prior posts on the topic include a discussion of a noteworthy appeals court opinion that examined scraping activity under copyright law and the scope of liability under the DMCA anticircumvention provisions.  These seminal decisions and the issues they raise were expressly or implicitly addressed in the instant case. While we will briefly review some of the highlights of this decision below, the case is a must-read for website operators and entities that engage in web scraping activities.

UPDATE: On September 27, 2018, the Supreme Court granted Rimini Street, Inc.’s petition for a writ of certiorari asking the Court to review part of the multi-million dollar damage award against it for costs and resolve an apparent circuit split over whether so-called “non-taxable costs” may be awarded under the Copyright Act (which allows for the recovery of “full costs”).  The question presented is: “Whether the Copyright Act’s allowance of “full costs” (17 U.S.C. § 505) to a prevailing party is limited to taxable costs under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1920 and 1821, as the Eighth and Eleventh Circuits have held, or also authorizes non-taxable costs, as the Ninth Circuit holds.”  On March 4, 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the term “full costs” in §505 of the Copyright Act is limited to the six categories of taxable costs as specified at 28 U.S.C. §§1821 and 1920.

Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit issued a noteworthy ruling in a dispute between an enterprise software licensor and a third-party support provider.  The case is particularly important as it addresses the common practice of using automated means to download information (in this case, software) from websites in contravention of website terms and conditions.  Also, the case examines and interprets fairly “standard” software licensing language in light of evolving business practices in the software industry. (Oracle USA, Inc. v. Rimini Street, Inc., No. 16-16832 (9th Cir. Jan. 8, 2018)).

This past week, the Supreme Court denied the petitions for certiorari in two noteworthy Ninth Circuit decisions that had interpreted the scope of liability under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in the context of wrongful access of company networks by employees and in instances involving unwanted data

In a new development in an important scraping dispute, LinkedIn appealed the lower court’s decision to grant a preliminary injunction compelling LinkedIn to disable any technical measures it had employed to block the defendant’s data scraping activities.  LinkedIn’s brief was filed on October 3, 2017.  In it, LinkedIn asserts that