Craigslist’s hacking, copyright claims against rival PadMapper hold up — for now

A federal court has sided with Craigslist in the early stages of a bitter dispute over whether upstart data and apartment listing sites can draw on information posted by the classified giant to offer rival services.

In a ruling handed down Monday in San Francisco, US District Judge Charles Breyer refused the request of PadMapper, 3 Taps and other defendants to throw out a laundry list of claims by Craigslist, which is accusing the defendants of hacking, copyright infringement and more.

In the view of Craigslist, the newer companies are plundering data which it has collected and compiled at great effort. The defendants, meanwhile, say Craigslist is monopolizing data that belongs to users while offering an ugly, out-dated service. The lawsuit broke out last summer.

In a key part of Tuesday’s highly-technical decision, the judge examined whether Craigslist’s terms of service meant that users had given the site permission to use their ads as the basis for copyright lawsuits. The judge said Craigslist didn’t obtain such permission, except for a short period in the summer of 2012 when the site changed its terms of service — before backing down in the face of a popular backlash.

What this means is that Craigslist can rely on users’ ads to go forward with its copyright lawsuit, but only those ads written between July 16 and August 8, 2012. The judge also said said that Craigslist may have its own copyright over the way it has compiled the ads, though it will still have to prove that this compilation is an “original” artistic work.

The hacking portion of the decision, which is based on the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and a similar law in California, is also nuanced. The judge wrote that the companies’ attempts to access Craigslist data after receiving cease-and-desist letters might be “unauthorized access” under the laws, but implicitly suggested that the laws are out of date.

The judge also gave Craigslist a minor victory by agreeing to shelve counter-claims from Padmapper and 3Taps over the monopoly issue. The defendants won their own minor victory when the judge threw out Craigslist’s conspiracy claims.

So what does all this mean? Monday’s decision is very preliminary and was about what can stay in the case — the real action will start at the summary judgment stage, likely later this year, where each side can try to win on a matter of law.

In the bigger picture, the case is important because it is helping to set the rules over the degree to which companies can treat data controlled by other firms as a public good.

This is just a short summary of a complex decision. If you want to get further into the weeds, here is a marked-up copy of the ruling itself:

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