By Cheryl Beise, J.D.
General Motors LLC and GM Global Technology Operations LLC (together, "GM") failed to state copyright infringement and circumvention claims against two automotive parts suppliers that allegedly sold aftermarket vehicle control modules containing unauthorized copies of GM’s copyrighted software covering its electronic control modules, the federal district court in Detroit has determined. GM was given 21 days to cure the pleading defects (General Motors LLC v. Dorman Products, Inc., September 30, 2016, Rosen, G.).
GM equips its vehicles with "a number of electronic control modules that control various systems" within the vehicle, including a "Transmission Electro-Hydraulic Control Module or TEHCM." According to GM, TEHCM and other modules run software and other computer files owned by GM, some of which are "reflected in at least" the six copyright registrations listed in the amended complaint. GM provides aftermarket updates to the software and other computer files that run on these control modules.
GM sued aftermarket parts sellers, Dorman Products, Inc. and Electronics Remanufacturing Company, LLC ("ERC"), accusing them of (1) copyright infringement by selling vehicle control modules that contained unauthorized copies of GM’s copyrighted software and (2) violating Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) by overriding the security measures used in GM’s vehicle control modules in order to program the modules with unauthorized copies of GM’s copyrighted software. The defendants moved to dismiss GM’s claims for failure to state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).
Copyright pleading standard. The court first rejected the defendants’ assertion that under Sixth Circuit precedent, copyright infringement claims are governed by a "higher pleading requirement" than the Twombly/Iqbal standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court did not interpret the case cited by the defendants and other courts in the district—National Business Development Services, Inc. v. American Credit Education & Consulting, Inc., 299 F. App’x 509, 512 (6th Cir. Oct. 31, 2008)—as requiring a different plausibility standard that that set forth in Twombly and Iqbal.
Copyright infringement claim. To plausibly state a claim for copyright infringement, a plaintiff must allege ownership of a valid copyright and copying of constituent elements of the copyrighted work that are original. GM alleged that the defendants infringed copyrights owned and registered by GM by "selling vehicle control modules with infringing copies of [GM’s] software and other computer files loaded on them." GM alleged that it owns copyrighted software and other computer files for its vehicle electronic control modules, and that GM had registered its copyrights in this material as reflected in at least six specified certificates of registration issued by the U.S. Copyright Office.
The court held that GM failed to plead ownership of a valid copyright because its allegations "did not forge any sort of connection" between its list of six copyrighted works and any control modules installed in GM’s vehicles. To hold otherwise would "permit a party to plead the first element of a claim of copyright infringement merely by citing to a laundry list of copyright registrations…without any effort to identify which of the party’s copyrighted works were involved in the defendant’s allegedly infringing activities," the court said.
The court found, however, that GM’s allegations that the software found on Dorman’s module copied, and was a "verbatim copy" and "complete duplicate" of GM’s copyrighted work, satisfied the unauthorized copying element.
DMCA circumvention claim. GM charged the defendants with violating a DMCA provision that prohibits the "circumvent[ion] [of] a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under" federal copyright law. 17 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(1)(A).
The court agreed with the defendants that the technological measures cited in GM’s amended complaint appeared to limit access to GM’s control modules, rather than its copyrighted software. GM alleged that the defendants "start[ed] with" possibly unauthorized copies of GM’s copyrighted software, and then were able, through their circumvention of GM’s security measures, to gain access to GM’s vehicle control modules "in order to program them with unauthorized copies of" GM’s software.
The plain language of the DMCA provision at issue prohibits the circumvention of technological measures that "effectively control access to a work protected under" copyright law. However, GM alleged that the defendants circumvented a technological measure that controls access to vehicle control modules, and not the copyrighted software that GM loaded onto the modules, the court noted. Consequently, GM failed to state a claim under the DMCA.
The court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss both claims. However, GM was given 21 days to amend its complaint to cure the deficiencies identified by the court.
The case is No. 2:15-cv-12917-GER-EAS.
Attorneys: Emily J. Tait (Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP) for General Motors LLC and GM Global Technology Operations LLC. Kimberly A. Berger (Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, P.L.C.) for Dorman Products, Inc. and Electronics Remanufacturing Co., LLC.
Companies: General Motors LLC; GM Global Technology Operations LLC; Dorman Products, Inc.; Electronics Remanufacturing Co., LLC
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