Ninth Circuit Issues Decision in Hunley v. Instagram

Posted July 19, 2023
Photo by Alexander Shatov on Unsplash

On Monday, the Ninth Circuit issued a decision in Hunley v. Instagram, a case about whether Instagram (and platforms like it) can be held liable for secondary infringement based on its embedding feature, whereby websites employ code to display an Instagram post on their sites within their own content. We are delighted to announce that the court ruled in favor of Instagram, reinforcing important copyright principles which allow authors and other creators to link to and embed third-party content, enriching their writing in the process. 

Our Brief

Authors Alliance signed on to an amicus brief in this case, arguing that Instagram should not be held liable for contributory infringement for its embedding feature. We explained that Instagram was not liable under a precedential legal test established in Perfect 10 v. Amazon, and moreover that a ruling to the contrary could place our ability to link to other online content (which is analogous to embedding in many ways) at risk for legal liability. 

Narrowing the Perfect 10 test—which establishes that a website does not infringe when it does not store a copy of the relevant work on its server—would have struck a blow to how we share and engage with online content. Linking to other information allows authors to easily cite to other information without disrupting the flow of their writing. By the same token, it allows internet users to verify information and learn more about topics of interest, all with the click of a button. We are pleased that the court ruled in favor of Instagram, declining to revisit the Perfect 10 test and holding that it foreclosed relief for the photographers that had filed the lawsuit. In so doing, the court has helped maintain a vibrant internet where all can share and engage with knowledge and creative expression.

The Decision

The case concerned a group of photographers whose instagram posts were embedded into content by several media outlets. The photographers then sued Instagram in the Northern District of California, on the theory that by offering the “embedding” feature, it was facilitating copyright infringement of others and therefore was liable. The district court found that Perfect 10 applied to the case, and therefore that Instagram was not liable for infringement for the outlets’ display of the posts. 

The Ninth Circuit agreed, and furthermore declined to revisit or narrow the Perfect 10 case for a number of reasons—it rejected the argument that the search engines at issue in the Perfect 10 case itself were somehow different from social media platforms, and affirmed that Perfect 10 was consistent with more recent Supreme Court case law. The court also cited with approval our argument that embedding and in-line linking have paved the way for innovation and creativity online, though did not adopt the justification, reasoning that it is not a court’s job to serve as a policymaker. In applying the Perfect 10 test, the court explained that Instagram did not infringe the photographers’ copyrights, and where there is no direct infringement, there cannot be related secondary infringement. Instagram displayed a copy of the relevant photographs on its platform, which users permit via a license they agree to by using the platform. But it did not facilitate the images’ display elsewhere, because the computer code used by the media platforms that embedded the instagram posts did not make a copy of the posts, but rather formatted and displayed them.