Copyright at the Supreme Court

Written by Stan Adams

This week, the Supreme Court issued two unanimous decisions related to copyright. Although neither is likely to reshape the world of copyright, the Court’s opinions should at least provide more certainty for copyright litigants in the future.

Case 1: Oracle v. Rimini Street

In Oracle v. Rimini Street, the Court addressed the question of what the phrase “full costs” means, as applied to awards in copyright litigation. In this case, the district court had awarded Oracle $12.8 Million to compensate for Oracle’s expenditures on expert witnesses, e-discovery, and jury consulting. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit upheld the award, reasoning that the phrase “full costs” should be interpreted to mean all of the costs incurred through the litigation. The Court disagreed, instead limiting the phrase (at least with respect to Section 505 of the Copyright Act) to only those costs specified in 28 U.S.C. Sections 1821 and 1920.

For Oracle, this means that the otherwise successful infringement claim against Rimini Street ($50 Million in damages, $28.5 Million in attorney’s fees, $5 Million in costs) was diminished by its non-recoverable costs. For future plaintiffs and defendants, the decision adds clarity about what kinds of litigation costs will not be recouped, potentially pushing either party away from certain litigation expenditures. While this may influence the way litigation plays out, it is unlikely to significantly affect copyright policy.

Case 2: Fourth Estate v. Wallstreet.com

In Fourth Estate v. Wallstreet.com, the Court answered the question of when copyright holders may file infringement claims. First, some background. All original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression are protected by copyright, so you automatically hold a copyright for anything (original) you write, draw, or create. However, to file a civil claim for infringement, you must register the work with the Copyright Office. This requirement and the statutory damages for which registered works are eligible act as an incentive for all authors to register their works. Registration also benefits the public interest in access to and use of works because each registered work is added to the Library of Congress, which makes it possible to identify the copyright holder for registered works and contributes to the collective body of knowledge and creative expression the copyright system is designed to advance.

In this case, Fourth Estate had licensed some of its news content to the website Wallstreet.com. Fourth Estate sued when the Wallstreet.com cancelled the licensing agreement, but did not remove Fourth Estate’s content from the site. Fourth Estate had filed registration applications with the Copyright Office, but the Office had not yet registered the works. Wallstreet.com challenged the claim and, ultimately, the Court agreed that the Office must complete the registration before a claim may be brought. However, after registration, copyright holders are able to bring claims for acts of infringement that occurred before the registration. As with Rimini Street, this decision changes little about our copyright system, but does add clarity for future litigants.

The Court may see more copyright cases in the coming term, including questions about the subject matter of copyright, fair use, and digital first sale. Stay tuned!

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