Judge Throws Out Craigslist’s Copyright Lawsuit, But It Can Still Sue 3Taps Over Data Use

A California federal judge has ruled that Craigslist can’t sue real estate listings platforms 3Taps, PadMapper, and Discover Home Network for copyright infringement. But the judgement isn’t a complete victory for the developers of 3Taps because Craigslist is still allowed to sue the startup for gaining unauthorized access to data on its Web site. Critics of Craiglist’s legal actions have said that they stifle innovation and competition.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer denied 3Taps’ request to dismiss claims by Craigslist that it violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), but he threw out copyright claims against 3Taps for using information from user listings. Breyer wrote that aside from a two-week period last year, Craigslist’s TOU did not grant it an exclusive rights and copyright to user-generated postings.

Craigslist provides no authority for the proposition that an ambiguous grant of rights is presumptively exclusive, and the court declines to read that term into the terms that Craigslist itself drafted. The court therefore concludes that the TOU, standing alone, did not grant Craigslist an exclusive license. Without an exclusive license, Craigslist cannot sue for infringement; the TOU provision that purportedly granted Craigslist the right to sue is ‘impermissible,'” Breyer wrote in his decision.

Though the company may still face a lawsuit from Craigslist, 3Taps is viewing Breyer’s decision as a victory. On its Web site, 3Taps posted a statement saying:

“Craigslist has threatened scores of startups and established firms with copyright claims over user content posted to its site.  But, on April 30, 2013, Justice Charles R. Breyer, speaking for the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, put an end to further sham litigation by dismissing Craigslist assertions that it held exclusive licenses and copyright over user generated postings submitted to its site.

Furthermore, the fact that 3taps syndicates user generated content to 3rd parties such as Padmapper was also dismissed as a baseless accusation of criminal conspiracy.  Startups creating new search options for users for data from multiple sites can more confidently continue to focus on innovation rather than litigation.”

Craigslist began taking legal action against PadMapper, 3Taps, and other developers last July after a dispute over the use of Craigslist data in third-party services. In addition to 3Taps, which became PadMapper’s partner for data acquisition after the initial cease & desist letter from Craigslist), TechCrunch reported that Craigslist also sent C&Ds to Missouri-based Web site developer Jeff Kastner and the makers of Ziink’s Craigslist helper. Then in August, Craigslist made the move of amending its TOU to say that it is the exclusive licensee of user-generated posts, though it dropped that provision within a week.

3Taps filed a countersuit against Craigslist in September, citing unfair and uncompetitive business practices in violation of federal and state antitrust laws. At the time, 3Taps said that Craigslist used its “market power illegally to stifle innovation and hurt consumers,” depriving users of “better ways to find and execute real-time exchange transactions.”

In today’s statement, 3Taps addressed the potential lawsuit from Craigslist and again reiterated its belief that Craigslist’s tactics stymie innovation:

“Still remaining as an issue in the case is how 3taps accesses the data in question. At the start of the litigation between the parties, 3taps sourced the publicly available data through third party sources such as Google. Once Craigslist began blocking Google, 3taps accessed Craigslist directly, which resulted in a subsequent cause of action by Craigslist under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (the CFAA). The statute is the same anti-hacking cause of action leveled against the late Aaron Swartz over his high volume downloading of JSTOR academic articles from the MIT campus. The difference here is that Craigslist has leveled these charges of unauthorized access for data that is already publicly available, not copyrighted by Craigslist, and already in the hands of third parties such as Google. At issue is whether Craigslist restraints exist to “protect” its community or are actually thinly disguised tactics to deter competition and innovation at the expense of, rather than defense of, users.”

We’ve reached out to Craigslist and 3Taps for further comment.