A Copyright Small Claims Update: Defaults and Failure to Opt Out

Posted February 1, 2024

We’ve been tracking for a few years the new copyright small claims court known as the Copyright Claims Board. My last update was in September when I posted a summary of a paper I wrote with Katie Fortney summarizing data about the first year of operations of the court (thanks entirely to Katie for doing the hard work of extracting that data and sharing it in an easy-to-understand format). 

As explained then, the CCB has been slow in processing cases; it only entered a final judgment on the merits in one case when I last wrote. It has now issued a total of 18 final determinations, about half of which are default determinations (cases where the respondent failed to appear or refused to participate in the CCB process). The facts for most of these cases are not very interesting, but two of the most recent caught my attention. 

Oakes v. Heart of Gold Pageant System

The first case, Oakes v. Heart of Gold Pageant System Inc., highlights a concern from opponents of the CCB when it was being debated in Congress. Namely, the CCB’s ability to make default determinations could be a trap for the unwary defendants who don’t understand what the CCB is, what a case before it could mean for them, or what their rights are to opt out of a CCB proceeding. 

The facts are unspectacular: Oakes, a professional photographer represented by Higbee & Associates, filed a CCB complaint against Heart of Gold and its owner, Angel Jameson, for using photographs taken by Oakes on Heart of Gold’s Facebook page and in materials for events it sponsored. Oakes originally filed the claim in July 2022 and then refiled it in August 2022 with some corrections. Oakes then provided the CCB with the required proof of service (proof that Oakes had adequately informed Heart of Gold and Jameson of the CCB claim) in October 2022. 

At this point, the ball was in Heart of Gold and Jameson’s court; she could either respond and defend her use, or (if done within 60 days of service) opt out of the CCB proceeding altogether. Unfortunately for her, she did neither, which resulted in a default determination against her for $4,500. 

We learn in the final determination a little more about Jameson’s lack of participation. As the CCB recounts in its final default determination: 

“At multiple points in this procedural history, Jameson has contacted the CCB, and after communicating with staff, has affirmed each time her intent to not participate in this proceeding.”

“Jameson initially contacted the Board in response to this Zoom link, expressing her disbelief that the Board is a government tribunal.”

“Jameson then sent another email in response to the First Default, requesting an ‘official day in court.’”

“In a subsequent call with CCB staff in March, Jameson indicated that she would not participate.”

“Shortly after the order scheduling the hearing, Jameson contacted the U.S. Copyright Office’s Public Information Office, who placed her in contact with CCB staff. In a follow-up call, CCB staff again explained the proceeding and Jameson again affirmed that she would not participate in the proceeding.”

Jameson missed her opportunity to opt out early in the case – she had a sixty-day window to do so, as defined by CCB regulations. So, her protests later were ineffective to opt out, even though it seems clear that she did not want her case to be heard by the CCB. 

Joe Hand Promotions v. Dawson 

A second default determination case offers a slightly different view of how the CCB treats defaults. The facts are similarly straightforward: Joe Hand is a company that “specializes in commercially licensing premier sporting events to commercial locations such as bars, restaurants, lounges, clubhouses, and similar establishments.” Joe Hand had obtained the exclusive right to sell pay-per-view access to a boxing event–” Deontay Wilder vs. Tyson Fury II,” to commercial establishments, including bars. Joe Hand provided evidence that a California bar, “Bottoms Up,” had shown the match without permission. 

Joe Hand (a frequent filer with the CCB, with 33 cases to its name) ran into a problem in this case, however, because it didn’t actually file its case against Bottoms Up, but instead against the individual that is listed on the bar’s liquor license and ownership documents, Mary Dawson. Even in Dawson’s absence, the CCB was unwilling to rubber-stamp Joe Hand’s claims against her. The final determination explained, 

Beyond the conclusory and clearly boilerplate allegations in the Claim that Dawson (and now-dismissed respondent Giglio) ‘owned, operated, maintained, and controlled the commercial business known as Bottoms Up Bar & Grill’ and ‘had a right and ability to supervise the activities of the Establishment on the date of the Program and had an obvious and direct financial interest in the activities of the Establishment on the date of the Program’ (Dkt. 1), Claimant offers absolutely no information linking Respondent to the infringement.” 

I will spare you the details, but the CCB went on to cite case after case explaining why courts have routinely rejected such boilerplate claims, and required plaintiffs to at least allege meaningful facts connecting an individual to an act of infringement.  Even in this default case where Dawson was not present to defend herself, the CCB put in the effort on her behalf. 


I have a few observations. In the first case, given that Jameson clearly did not want her case heard before the CCB, I think it would have been fair for the CCB to allow her a second chance to opt out. At least on the record we have available, there is no indication that the CCB offered her that chance.  Although the normal opt-out period extends only sixty days after service, the CCB opt-out regulations also state that “the Board may extend the 60-day period to opt out in exceptional circumstances and in the interests of justice.” 

It seems to me, given the newness of the CCB system, the small number of cases filed to date, and the relative lack of awareness among most people that the CCB is a legitimate government forum (Jameson expressed such doubt herself), the “interests of justice” may well dictate a more flexible approach at least at the outset of operations of the CCB. 

The CCB has demonstrated an extraordinary willingness to offer helpful guidance, flexibility, and multiple opportunities to claimants, and so respondents may have expected a similar approach to help them along through the process. At least in this case, we see a more stringent approach. An obvious takeaway for respondents then is to pay attention to notices about CCB claims and associated deadlines, and opt-out early on in the process if they think they don’t want their case heard there. 

The Dawson case, however, does show that the CCB isn’t willing to let claimants make unsubstantiated claims against absent respondents. Though Joe Hand is surely familiar with the process and it would have been easy for the CCB to accept its barebones allegations against Dawson as true, the CCB made the case itself–with ample legal support–that even claims against absent respondents require claimants to make a real case. 

Overall, these are just two cases,  so I don’t want to read into them too much. But it’s already looking like a large portion of CCB cases will be defaults (10 out of the 18 final determinations to date, and more than half of the existing active cases are trending in that direction). So, it’s good to keep an eye on how the CCB will treat these types of cases, given the risks they pose for unwary and uninformed respondents.