A federal judge in Los Angeles has issued a complicated order in a case that could impact the ecommerce industry's ability to claim "safe harbor" protection against secondary copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

On Friday, Judge Terry Hatter of U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Western Division, accepted the claims of Robert Hendrickson that Amazon.com as well as certain third-party vendors that used the company's service were liable for copyright infringement.

The case involved the sale of pirated copies of a documentary movie called "Manson" -- a chilling account (www.exclusivefilms.com) of Charles Manson family, members of which were convicted for participation in what was known as the 1969 "Tate-LaBianca" killings involving actress Sharon Tate. Hendrickson filmed and produced the documentary in the early 1970s.

In a brief two-page order, Judge Hatter wrote: "it is ordered that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment on the direct copyright claim as to Martin Scriven, Music Recyclery, Mary Miller, Kevin Naser, CDDVDGametrader, Mike T. Sawyer and Amazon.com, be, and hereby is, granted.

"It is further ordered that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment on the vicarious copyright claim Amazon.com as to Music Recyclery, Mary Miller, Kevin Naser, CDDVDGametrader, Mike T. Sawyer, be, and hereby is, granted," according to a copy of the order obtained by internetnews.com.

Amazon.com would not comment in detail on the ruling. But a spokesman, Bill Curry, said: "We will be asking the judge for a clarification of what his ruling says. There's some ambiguities and we'll be asking for a clarification."

Adding to the confusion is the fact that Judge Hatter didn't provide a written opinion when he handed down the order on May 8.

"That does sound unusual," said Douglas Isenberg, publisher of Gigalaw.com.

Ironically, the Amazon case is similar to the suit that Hendrickson brought against eBay -- a 2001 case (which he lost) that has helped establish legal precedence for the boundries of the DMCA's "Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act." As a result of that widely reported September 2001 ruling, service providers like eBay were found to have "Safe Harbor" protection from secondary liability for copyright infringement.

Yet that ruling was handed down by Judge Hatter's colleague, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Kelleher, who declined to hear the Amazon.com case. Still, as conflicting as the two orders appear, legal scholars explained that splits in the lower courts do occur.

"It is not uncommon for trial courts to reach different opinions in any areas of the law particularly new areas involving online copyright issues. Usually those differences are resolved in the appeals process or over time as additional courts have the opportunity to intepret the same legal provisions and concensus builds among the trial courts," Isenberg said.

Hendrickson first brought the infringements to eBay's attention in December 2000. He sent a Notice of Infringement to the San Jose, Calif., online auction company in accordance with the DMCA, which stipulates that infringers must be given notice of their actions. eBay tried to persuade Hendrickson to join a companywide program designed to protect intellectual property rights known as its Verified Rights Owner (VeRO) program. However, eBay's attorneys successfully argued that Hendrickson refused to sign up for VeRO and failed to provide the specific details (like item #'s) of the infringing products. Hendrickson filed the first of his lawsuits against eBay in January 2001.

Yet, despite the outcome of the eBay case, Hendrickson continued to pursue enforcing the copyrights to his movie. In addition to the two e-commerce giants, he also has sued Walt Disney & Co. and MCA.

Hendrickson sent Amazon.com a "cease-and-desist" letter, thereby notifying the company of the infringement, in January 2002. Serving as his own attorney as he did in the eBay case, he offered his own interpretation of the DMCA as well as the 'Hendrickson vs eBay' decision in court filings. He argued that "service provider/website" is not liable for infringing activity conducted prior to a proper DMCA notice; however, once a notice stating that all copies are unauthorized is served, the defendant should then be liable for any and all infringing sales thereafter.

In a telephone interview, Hendrickson explained that Judge Hatter's ruling followed that argument that he outlined. The only defendant that conducted a sale via Amazon.com prior to his January 2002 notice was Martin Scriven. And according to Judge Hatter's order, the only claim of vicarious infringement against Amazon.com that was denied applied to Martin Scriven.

"I'm not going to comment further beyond saying that we'll be asking the judge for some clarification," Amazon.com's Curry said.

Other defendants listed in Hendrickson's suit couldn't be reached for comment.