Facebook In Hot Water Again With Recent Copyright Lawsuit

Published on June 10, 2019

San Francisco, CALIFORNIA—Last Thursday, Facebook, Inc. and Princeton University were hit with a major lawsuit from home design company, Planner 5D, claiming the two Defendants were scraping over five gigabytes of data from more than 2,500 three-dimensional objects and 45,000 scenes vital to the development of the company’s computer vision technology.

UAB “PLANNER5D,” a private Lithuanian company behind the Planner 5D website, sued Facebook and Princeton for copyright infringement and trade secret theft under the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) and the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act (CUTSA) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Thursday.

Representatives of Facebook and Princeton did not immediately respond to messages Thursday. Planner 5D’s lawyer, Marc Bernstein of The Business Litigation Group in San Francisco, said in a phone interview Thursday, that the company is considering adding more individual, university, and corporate defendants as it learns more about how the data was scraped and shared.

“The company takes this seriously because they consider this a significant threat, and they think this data is a key ingredient for scene recognition research,” he said.

Grit Daily reached out to Planner5D and was able to very briefly speak with Alexey Sheremetyev, the CEO and Founder of Planner5D about the ongoing lawsuit. Due to the active nature of the case,the conversation was very short-winded.

What’s the Legal?

We are starting to see more legal battles over the issue of copyright in today’s digital age.

Back in March, the European Union passed its Copyright Directive, aimed at restructuring intellectual property law for its member nations.

The heart of this lawsuit centers around the concept of “computer vision”—the ability of machines to recognize three-dimensional scenes. This is one of today’s leading research fields because whoever first masters this technology, will forever change humankind’s relationship with machines.

It’s estimated that the computer vision market will reach $48 billion by 2023, and $60 billion by 2025.

Meet the Plaintiff, ‘Planner 5D’

The Plaintiff, Planner 5D, is a user-friendly home design tool, created in 2011, that allowed anyone to quickly and easily create their own home, office, or landscape designs. Complaint, 27, 10-12. With over 40 million users worldwide, Planner 5D allows its users to select from thousands of available objects, from structural features such as windows, arches, doors, and stairs, to furniture such as sofas, beds, tables, chairs, and rugs, to kitchen and bathroom appurtenances such as baths and sinks, to electrical appliances such as lights, video equipment, and computers, and to exterior features such as paths, lawns, trees, plants, barbecues, and swimming pools. Id. 27, 12-16.

To create a design, users simply drag any of these objects onto or around a chosen floor plan. Id., 17-18. Once added to a design, these objects can be quickly and easily moved, rotated, tilted, re-sized, or otherwise manipulated to create the desired design. Id. 18-19. Users can easily toggle between two-and three-dimensional renderings of the design. Id. 19-20. In 3-D, a design can easily be rotated and tilted to any desired perspective. Id. 20-21.

The company created its library of realistic, digitized objects over a span of more than seven years, at a cost of millions of dollars, continuing to add to this library. Currently, the library contains over 4,500 objects. The company owns a copyright in the data file underlying each object, an in the compilation of individual data files. These works were authored in Europe or Russia.

What Did the Defendants’ ‘Allegedly’ Do?

Outlined in the Complaint, Princeton researchers working in the computer vision field had identified a lack of data as a significant hurdle within the field. The document goes on to allege that researchers in turn, developed a data set, named SUNCG by Princeton researchers, was built from scraping Planner 5D’s library of object and scene files, a practice which is banned in the company’s user agreement.

Facebook launched a worldwide scene-recognition competition called the SUMO Challenge (Scene Understanding and Modeling Challenge). SUMO Challenge entrants were encouraged to submit scene-recognition papers and algorithms. Facebook and its SUMO Challenge affiliates published their own copy of the SUNCG dataset and directed contestants to download and use it for their contest submissions. Consequently, the current number of SUNCG dataset holders is unknown.

Facebook, allegedly, promised cash prizes and the opportunity to present submissions to a jury (consisting of Facebook, Princeton University, and others) in return for a “perpetual, royalty-free, no-cost license and right to use and otherwise exploit” the submitted materials, including Facebook’s right to use the contest submissions “in any merchandising, advertising, marketing, promotion or for any other commercial or non-commercial purpose”.

What’s On Facebook’s Plate This Time?

#1—Copyright Infringement

“The Congress shall have Power…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”

–U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8

In the U.S., copyright law is governed pursuant to the Copyright Act of 1976 (“Act)”. The Act prevents the unauthorized copying of a work of authorship. In order for a work to receive copyright protection, a work must be “original” and must be “fixed” in a tangible medium of expression.

The Plaintiff alleges that it is the sole owner of all right, title, and interest in the copyrighted works, specifically the SUNCG dataset.  In the Complaint, the company alleges that the Defendants, and each of them, directly infringed upon Plaintiff’s copyrights, in violation of U.S. Copyright law, including 17 U.S.C. $101 et seq.

#2—Trade Secret Misappropriation Under the Defend Trade Secrets Act

The Defend Trade Secret Act of 2016 (DTSA), was passed into law back in April 2016 during the Obama Administration. The DTSA, for the first time, provides a federal civil remedy for the misappropriation of trade secrets.

Before the DTSA, only criminal charges for trade secret theft were available in federal court. All other civil actions were brought under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), which is adopted by 47 states, excluding New York, North Carolina, and Massachusetts.

The DTSA provides a party with a cause of action if they “suffered damage by reason of a wrongful or excessive seizure.” This entitled the injured party to damages for lost profits, cost of materials, loss of good will, and punitive damages in instances where the seizure was sought in bad faith. The court may allow recovering reasonable attorney’s fees, unless the court finds extenuating circumstances.

In the Complaint, Plaintiff brings a claim of trade secret misappropriation under the DTSA, asserting that that the data files defining the objects created by it, and those defining its vast compilation of scenes (i.e., object and data files), are trade secrets belonging to the Plaintiff. It further explains that it takes reasonable measures to preserve their secrecy, which are not generally known to, or readily ascertainable through proper means by, the public, and they derive independent economic value from their secrecy.

The Plaintiff continues to assert that the Defendants acquired those object and scene files through improper means, by visiting thousands of Plaintiff’s web pages and scraping those files from tens of thousands of further addresses on the Plaintiff’s servers, leading to the acquisition, disclosure, and use of those trade secrets.

#3—Trade Secret Misappropriation Under the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act—Against All Defendants

Unlike DTSA, the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act (CUTSA), applies to state-specific matters with companies looking to resolve intellectual property matters. DTSA specifically provides an employee with the ability to use or disclose the trade secret details to obtain employment or when working with another employer, as well as providing immunity to whistleblowers.

However, under CUTSA, a plaintiff cannot request a direct court order to enforce the seizure of property to stop any further and continued misappropriation with the trade secrets.

For an action to proceed under CUTSA, four elements must be met:

  • The trade secret must exist as information, whether the data has a process, ingredient, or a method that applies to a product or service;
  • The information must have economic value;
  • Must stay secret; and
  • Reasonable efforts were made to maintain its secrecy

What’s Next?

Pursuant to the Complaint, Bernstein has demanded a jury trial on all issues pled in the Complaint. This will be a lawsuit to follow, which Grit Daily will be keeping tabs on.

For more information, you can follow the case through the PACER system by entering the following information—Case No.: 3:190-cv-03132

Andrew "Drew" Rossow is a former contract editor at Grit Daily.

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