The following post by Authors Alliance Copyright Research Assistant Nicolas Charest provides an overview of Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org Inc. Today, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in this case, which examines whether the “government edicts” doctrine extends to the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, rendering it uncopyrightable.
The Code Revision Commission (the “Commission”), an arm of the State of Georgia’s General Assembly, is mandated to ensure publication of the statutes adopted by the General Assembly. It does so by contracting with the LexisNexis Group (“Lexis”) to maintain, publish, and distribute the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (“OCGA”), an annotated compilation of Georgia’s statutes. Following guidelines provided by the Commission, Lexis prepares and sells OCGA, which includes the statutory text of Georgia’s laws and annotations (such as summaries of judicial decisions interpreting or applying particular statutes). Lexis also makes unannotated versions of the statutes available online.
Public.Resource.Org (“PRO”) is a non-profit organization that promotes access to government records and primary legal materials. PRO makes government documents available online, including the official codes and other rules, regulations, and standards legally adopted by federal, state, and local authorities, giving the public free access to these documents. PRO purchased printed copies of the OCGA, digitized its content, and posted copies online through its own website.
Georgia filed suit against PRO claiming copyright infringement. Before the lower courts, PRO invoked the judicially-created “government edicts” doctrine. As a matter of public policy, courts have held that government edicts having the force of law, such as statutes and judicial decisions, are not eligible for copyright protection. While the court of first instance agreed with the State of Georgia and the OCGA was found to be copyrightable, on appeal the Eleventh Circuit held that under the government edicts doctrine, OCGA is not copyrightable and rejected Georgia’s infringement claim against PRO. Now, the issue before the Supreme Court is whether Georgia can claim copyrights over the OCGA annotations or if it is prevented from doing so because the annotations are an edict of government.
Position of the Parties
The State of Georgia and the Georgia Code Revision Commission submit that the annotations are not excluded from copyright protection; the annotations lack the force of law and therefore do not trigger the government edicts doctrine. Georgia also argues that the annotations are “derivative works” from the statutes and though published alongside materials in the public domain, they nonetheless are produced by a private entity. Finally, Georgia states that copyright in the annotations is the underlying incentive for its partnership with Lexis and, absent copyright protection for OCGA, Lexis would lose incentive to produce the annotations unless Georgia used taxpayer funds to directly pay for the services.
Public.Resource.Org argues that, in addition to texts with binding legal effect, any works that represent an “authentic” exercise of state legal authority, including legal works adopted or published under the authority of the state, are uncopyrightable edicts of government and therefore cannot be copyrighted. They posit that as long as the documents embody the authority of the state, such works would not be subject to copyright, even if they do not have legal force. PRO concludes that since the OCGA is an official legal document that holds itself out as “published under the authority of the State,” it is therefore a government edict that is ineligible for copyright protection.
Audio of the oral arguments in Georgia v. PublicResource.Org should be available on the website of the Supreme Court on Friday. We encourage members of Authors Alliance to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your views on the implications and outcome of this case. We will provide an update once the Court issues its decision in this case.
As a follow up to our recent coverage of the fair use issues in the Chronicle Books v. Audible Inc. case, Authors Alliance Copyright Research Assistant Nicolas Charest provides an update on three current cases involving the doctrine of fair use. Click on each case name below to learn more.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises v. ComicMix LLC.
Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go! (“Boldly”) is
a book that combines the use of imagery, characters, and other visual elements
from the Star Trek franchise and the works of Dr. Seuss (most notably Oh,
the Places You’ll Go!). In 2016, Dr. Seuss Enterprises sued the creators of
Boldly, alleging that the work infringes
on Dr. Seuss’ works. (The plaintiffs also brought trademark and unfair
competition claims, which are not reviewed in this post.) As for the copyright
claim, the defendants argued that the use was permitted under the fair use
In March 2019, the district court held that the use of elements of Seuss’s work in Boldly is a fair use. Under the first fair use factor (the purpose and character of the use), the court found that although defendants borrowed from Dr. Seuss’ work, these elements were always adapted and the work is highly transformative, thus favoring fair use. Because Dr. Seuss’ work is highly creative, the court found that the second factor (the nature of the work), slightly favored the plaintiffs. Under the third factor (the amount and substantiality of the portion taken), the court found that because the elements are similar, but not replicated, the third factor does not weigh against the defendants. The court explained that while some shapes were borrowed, they were adapted to the Star Trek universe; for example, the narrator is transformed into Captain Kirk and instead of a Seussian landscape, the cover image is set in space. Under the fourth factor (the effect of the use on the market), the court found that the plaintiff failed to introduce evidence demonstrating that Boldly will substantially harm the market for Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, concluding that the fourth factor therefore favors neither party. Balancing all factors together, the court concluded that Boldly is a fair use of Dr. Seuss’ literary universe.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises appealed the decision, and the case is now before the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In its opening brief filed in August, Dr. Seuss Enterprises argues that the four factors do not lead to a finding of fair use. They argue that Boldly is not transformative since it does not parody, comment, criticize or comment on Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. They argue that the defendants “merely aped the purpose of Go!: entertaining the readers (mostly graduates starting out in the world) with an uplifting story.” They further highlight that Dr. Seuss’ works are substantially borrowed because elements central to the Seussian universes are taken, and that merely putting Star-Trek elements in what is otherwise a Seuss world does not result in any transformation. Finally, Dr. Seuss Enterprises argues that Boldly is likely to harm the market for authorized mash-ups.
Recently, the defendants filed a reply brief maintaining that Boldly makes fair use of Dr. Seuss’ books. We will follow developments in the Ninth Circuit.
De Fontbrune v. Wofsy
In the late 1990s, Alan Wofsy, a San Francisco-based art gallery and art book publisher, published and distributed in France The Picasso Project, a catalogue containing reproduction of photographs of Pablo Picasso’s works. These photographs were taken from another catalogue initially published by Christian Zervos (the Zervos Catalogue). Yves Sicre De Frontbrune then acquired the rights into the Zervos Catalogue, and later filed a copyright infringement claim against Wofsy on the basis that The Picasso Project infringed on the copyrights over the photographs. In 2001, a judgment of copyright infringement was obtained in France against Wofsy which also ordered an “astreinte” that required the defendant to pay €10,000 for each future act of copyright infringement in the works. In 2011, copies of The Picasso Project were again found in France and De Fontbrune sought enforcement of the astreinte and consequently a French court awarded €2 million to De Fontbrune in 2012.
Recognition of the 2012 judgment in California was
then sought to enforce the award of money. As part of its analysis to determine
whether a foreign judgment can validly be recognized and enforced in the United
States, a court must determine whether the judgment is repugnant to the public policy
of the forum state or the United States. Wofsy argued that, based on the same
facts in the United States, the use of
the copyrighted photographs was protected by US fair use and there would be
therefore no finding of copyright infringement, which would mean that the astreinte
judgment issued by the French court was “repugnant” to US public policy.
The California district court analyzed the four fair use factors to assess whether a conduct constitutes fair use. The Court decided that the first (purpose and character of the use) and fourth (the effect of the use on the potential market) factors weighed strongly in favor of fair use. The Picasso Project is a reference work intended for libraries, academic institutions, art collectors, and auction houses, which demonstrates that it has an educational purpose, despite the concurrent commercial nature of the work. The Court also found that The Picasso Project and the Zervos Catalogue were destined to disparate markets and were offered at wildly different price points, Zervos being sold as high as $100,000 at auction while The Picasso Project’s volume can be purchased at $150 a piece or as a set ranging from $2,780 to $3,780. It appeared unlikely to the Court that one would ever compete against the other. The court found the second factor (the nature of the copyrighted work), to slightly disfavor fair use, because while the photographs are creative works, the goal was to faithfully reproduce Picasso’s work, not to showcase the original artistic expression of the photographer. Finally, the court found that the third factor (the amount and substantiality of the portion taken), weighs in favor of fair use because Wofsy copied less than ten percent of The Zervos Catalogue’s photographs. The court ultimately concluded that it would not recognize the 2012 judgment because The Picasso Project’s use of copyrighted photographs qualifies as fair use.
On September 12th 2019, the district court granted summary judgment in favour of Wofsy on the basis of the fair use doctrine, and partly in favour of the representatives of De Fontbrune on other procedural grounds. Both parties have appealed.
Sketchworks Industrial Strength Comedy, Inc. v. Jacobs
Sketchworks, an Atlanta-based sketch comedy company, wrote and produced a play titled Vape: The Musical. Vape follows the narrative arc of the hit musical Grease, but brings the cast of characters into the modern day by integrating elements such as online dating, millennial slang, and vaping. A link to the full performance can be found here.
Sketchworks performed Vape in Atlanta in 2018 with enough success to warrant a production of the play in New York, which was scheduled to open in August 2019. Prior to the show’s opening, Sketchworks received a cease-and-desist letter from the copyright holders in Grease, claiming that Vape infringes on Grease and demanding that the production immediately be stopped. Shortly after, the New York theatre cancelled the performances. On August 9th 2019, Sketchworks filed a motion for a declaratory judgment, asking a district court in New York to find that to the extent that Vape uses copyrightable elements from the play Grease, it is fair use under the exception of parody in copyright law.
Sketchworks argues that Vape is a deliberate parody of Grease
that is intended to criticize its misogynistic and sexist elements, which the
creators argue have not aged well. At the same time, the play is set in modern
times and attempts to show that the struggles of contemporary teenagers are
similar to what their Grease-counterparts experienced in their time. As
stated in the complaint, “Vape not
only comments on the controversial themes in Grease, it also explores whether modern society has progressed at
all by pointing to current systemic issues that still exist based on the
misogyny of the era in which Grease
was written and is set.” Sketchworks concludes that any elements that may be
copyrightable are used in a sufficiently transformative manner and are used for
parody purposes which justify a finding of fair use on its play’s use, if any, of
copyrightable elements borrowed from Grease.
To learn more about fair use, we recommend taking a look at our Fair Use FAQs. Nonfiction authors can explore Authors Alliance’s Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors, a guide that helps nonfiction authors make confident fair use decisions when incorporating source materials into their writings. Other communities of creators can learn how their communities apply fair use in situations typical to their given community through best practices documents developed by those communities.
Authors Alliance was pleased to partner with Rebecca Giblin of the Author’s Interest Project to host a side panel at the SCCR/39, “Supporting Authors in a Digital Age.”
Giblin shared preliminary results from a study of more than 50 years of publishing contracts from the archive of the Australian Society of Authors. The research revealed that publication contracts are often insufficient to protect authors’ interests. For example, 14% of the contracts examined by Giblin and her colleague Joshua Yuvaraj did not include out-of-print rights, and only 6% of contracts used objective criteria (such as sales or revenue numbers) to define out-of-print status.
Giblin described how reversion rights give authors fresh opportunities to financially benefit from their works, open up new investment opportunities for publishers, and promote ongoing availability to the public. Giblin explained that their research suggests that there is a need to investigate minimum reversion rights addressing books that have reached the end of their commercial life, uses that are not being exploited, situations where publishers go into liquidation, and term limits akin to US termination of transfer laws.
Brianna Schofield discussed how reverting rights can help authors to reach more readers, continue to contribute to scholarly and cultural discourse, and ensure that their works’ continuing impact and relevance are not limited by their commercial lives. She shared examples of authors who have regained rights and subsequently released their books on open terms, self-published their works, and placed their books with a new publisher. Schofield explained that, because of the tremendous benefits of reversion for authors and the public, Authors Alliance supports statutory termination rights for authors, as well as strengthening provisions governing reversion rights in publication contracts.
The following post by Authors Alliance Copyright Research Assistant Nicolas Charest provides an update on recent developments in the Chronicle Books v. Audible case, currently in the Southern District of New York. We encourage members of Authors Alliance to contact us at email@example.com to share your views on the proposed Audible Captions feature.
Earlier this summer, Audible announced plans to enable machine-generated text captions to scroll across screens as audiobooks are played, a development that prompted a group of seven publishers—including HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan—to initiate a lawsuit against Audible. As our previous discussion of the litigation explained, the publishers maintain that the Captions feature would infringe their copyrights because it creates unauthorized derivative works and reproduces, distributes, and publicly displays unauthorized copies of the books.
In its recent filing, Audible argues that the publisher’s case should be dismissed because the licenses granted to Audible bar such a claim, and that in any event, the Captions technology is a fair use of the copyrighted works. This post focuses on the fair use arguments; a detailed account of the license issue can be found here (and in the related court filing, here).
A refresher on fair use may be useful to readers: Fair use is a
limitation on U.S. copyright law which allows authors to use portions of a
copyrighted work without permission or payment, so long as that use is “fair.”
Courts consider at least four factors when determining whether a use is fair:
1) the purpose and character of the challenged use (often asking if the use is
“transformative”), 2) the nature of the copyrighted work, 3) the amount and
substantiality of the copyrighted work used, and 4) the effect on the potential
market for the copyrighted work. These four factors do not work in isolation
and must be carefully weighed together to determine if a use is fair.
Audible’s Fair Use Argument
Audible argues that Captions is a quintessential fair use. Audible argues that under the first fair use factor, Captions is unequivocally “transformative” and is a “utility-expanding” use of the licensed audiobooks: After paying for the right to experience the audiobook, listeners can use Captions to verify and focus on what they are hearing and to access external resources such as dictionaries or translations. Instead of allowing a user to read a book in any meaningful sense, Audible maintains that the purpose of Captions is to improve a listener’s ability to understand the work she has purchased.
Under the third fair
use factor, Audible argues that the amount of the copyrighted work used to
generate Captions is reasonable in relation to the purpose of the copying.
Under the fourth factor, Audible argues that the Captions feature is unlikely
to dissuade a user from purchasing the full text of the books, since the
captions are not a substitute and do not provide a replacement for a book or
e-book. Audible claims that the brief display of words does not provide a
meaningful substitute for the actual book because the text of the original work
is transcribed in small portions, it is displayed only momentarily and in sync
with the audio, and it does not provide the ability to refer back or flip
through a full coherent text. (As for the second fair use factor, Audible
argues that the fair use case hinges on the other three factors.)
Taking the four
factors together, Audible argues that Captions is a fair use of the licensed
Publishers’ Reply to
the Fair Use Argument
In reply to Audible’s fair use arguments, the publishers argue that the Captions feature is not transformative and gives access to the entirety of the text, which is not fair use. Under the first fair use factor, the publishers argue that Captions is not transformative as it does not serve another and different purpose than what would be accomplished by the underlying text: both serve the purpose of reading. The publishers argue that the Captions feature “does not shed any new light on the text of Publishers’ Works, it does not comment on or criticize them, and it is not used to find an authorized version of them; it merely provides the Works’ text in competition with authorized offerings.”
Under the second
factor, the publishers argue that most of the copyrighted works at issue are
creative and fictional, weighing against a finding of fair use. Under the third
factor, the publishers argue that the Captions feature provides access to the
entirety of the work, also weighing against fair use. Here, publishers
distinguish Captions from the Google Books snippets fair use case. Where
Google Books only provides snippets of books to allow a user to assess whether
access to the entire book would be useful, at no point do these snippets
display more than 1/8 of a page around a searched keywords and 10% of each book
is permanently unavailable. In contrast, Captions has no such restrictions and the
feature would allow access to 100% of the underlying text.
Finally, under the
fourth factor, publishers argue that Captions would cannibalize market
opportunities for publishers to distribute or license the eBooks of its texts,
thus weighing against a finding of fair use. The publishers maintain that Captions
is likely to discourage users to purchase the print and ebook versions of the
underlying text, and that Captions directly competes with parallel markets for
the texts, including cross-format services like Audible’s own Immersive Reading
In sum, the publishers
argue that the balance of the factors weighs against Audible’s fair use claim.
The parties are currently waiting on a
decision on whether a preliminary injunction will be granted, which would
prevent Audible from launching Captions on all of the publishers catalog
pending trial. Meanwhile, Audible is delaying the complete rollout of Audible
Captions, making it available only for audiobooks in the public domain until
the litigation is resolved. We will continue to monitor and provide updates on
Today, the United States House Committee on the Judiciary is scheduled to review H. R. 2426, the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2019 (the “CASE Act”). The CASE Act would establish a small claims tribunal within the Copyright Office as an alternative to federal court for pursuing copyright claims.
As we’ve previously written, Authors Alliance supports reducing barriers to copyright enforcement for those with limited financial resources by providing a faster and cheaper avenue to remedies. Today, the high cost of litigation keeps many independent authors and other creators from enforcing their copyrights. A well-designed copyright small claims process could fix this but, unfortunately, the CASE Act as written invites abuse and poses a high likelihood of harm to authors as both claimants and respondents in the proposed tribunal.
To address problems with the current draft of the CASE Act, our letter urges the Committee to:
Limit statutory damages to cases where it is impossible or cost prohibitive to prove actual damages and develop principles to guide awards of statutory damages;
Remove restrictions on the grounds for judicial review of the tribunal’s decisions;
Include additional safeguards to deter copyright trolls and preserve the utility of the small claims tribunal for independent authors and creators;
Require potential respondents to affirmatively opt-in to the small claims process; and
Narrow the jurisdiction of the small claims tribunal.
Read more about these recommendations in our letter to the Committee.
Independent authors and creators should have access to a low cost way to enforce their copyrights and vindicate their right to use others’ copyrighted works in lawful ways. We urge the Committee to modify the bill to better serve the creators it is intended to benefit.
Last Friday, a group of seven publishers—including HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan—filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the audiobook platform Audible. Earlier this summer, Audible (which is owned by Amazon) announced plans to enable machine-generated text captions to scroll across screens as audiobooks are played, a development that the publishers view as copyright infringement. The lawsuit, Chronicle Books, LLC et al. v. Audible, Inc., seeks an injunction to prevent the September release of the captioning function.
According to the publishers’ complaint, the proposed caption feature infringes on their copyrights because it creates unauthorized derivative works and reproduces, distributes, and publicly displays unauthorized copies of books in the form of the text accompanying the audiobooks. They argue that the text could act as a direct substitute for a book’s text in a physical book or e-book form and therefore competes with the publisher’s existing markets. The publishers state that “Audible’s admitted goal is to give users a reading experience, despite Audible only having the right to distribute audiobooks.”
Audible issued a statement in response to the lawsuit, stating that “We disagree with the claims that [the caption feature] violates any rights and look forward to working with publishers and members of the professional creative community to help them better understand the educational and accessibility benefits of this innovation.” According to the statement, the caption function was developed “to help kids who are not reading engage more through listening” and to address “the risk of losing a significant portion of the next generation of book readers.”
We encourage members of Authors Alliance to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your views on the proposed Audible caption feature and this litigation.
The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the University of Virginia Library recently released The Law and Accessible Texts: Reconciling Civil Rights and Copyrights, a white paper by Brandon Butler of the University of Virginia and Prue Adler and Krista Cox of ARL. The paper provides an overview of relevant caselaw, policy, and best practices.
As the Introduction states, “[t]he report begins with a brief description of the current state of civil rights laws favoring accessibility, including trends in enforcement in recent years. Section II provides an account of why and how copyright concerns have served as stumbling blocks for disability service offices (DSOs). Section III walks through each step in a remediation workflow and provides some key legal ramifications for how that step may proceed. Section IV explores more deeply the key provisions in copyright law favoring the creation and sharing of accessible texts; this section will be of most interest to university counsel’s offices and other legal experts. Finally, Section V surveys some legal and policy considerations beyond copyright and civil rights that may be worth bearing in mind as institutions design their collaborations in areas where law gives them flexibility.”
In a recent article in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law (available on SSRN), Ruth Okediji of Harvard Law School offers a critical analysis of the design of the international copyright system as it relates to economic development in the Global South. In the article, Okediji proposes changes to the international copyright limitations and exceptions (“L&Es”) system based on those insights.
Okediji argues that while liberty-enhancing L&Es (such as those that facilitate civic and social engagement, or ensure freedom of expression) have enjoyed considerable acceptance in the international copyright system, new international L&Es are needed that strengthen the capacity of developing and least-developed countries to absorb and utilize knowledge inputs (what Okediji refers to as “development-inducing L&Es”). In particular, Okediji argues that efforts to formulate a coherent L&E standard for education, particularly for online educational activities, could be an important step in providing the legal framework necessary to facilitate access to knowledge. She also argues that mandatory L&Es for libraries, archives, and other educational and cultural institutions are essential to facilitate both liberty-enhancing and development-inducing goals.
As Okediji writes:
“The prospects for developing and least-developed countries to benefit from global research and development (R&D) spillovers, to participate in international scientific collaborations, and to reduce the innovation divide are brighter than at any other time in history. Turning these prospects into realizable gains, in part, requires addressing barriers to knowledge acquisition and facilitating the diffusion of knowledge across borders. International copyright law is not the only hurdle to these goals, but it is an important one. Efforts by various stakeholders to address the global knowledge and innovation gap would benefit from renewed attention to the international copyright framework and, especially, a redesign of international copyright L&Es.”
While Okediji considers the L&Es agenda at WIPO to be a crucial part of the longstanding attempts to align copyright law with broader welfare concerns, she emphasizes that the reform that is necessary for copyright to accomplish the encouragement of learning and development in developing countries must be also advanced at national and regional levels.
The full text of Professor Okediji’s article can be viewed and downloaded here.
Authors Alliance has recently participated in conversations about international limitations and exceptions to copyright. Last November, Authors Alliance presented a statement to the World Intellectual Property (WIPO) Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights explaining how limitations and exceptions for education can benefit authors, without undermining fundamental purposes of copyright policy, and can encourage the diffusion of knowledge.
In December 2018, Authors Alliance submitted a brief to the Canadian Committee on Industry, Science and Technology in response to a request for public comment. The committee was tasked by Parliament with reviewing Canada’s copyright statutes and issuing a report with recommendations for action and further consideration. Our brief urged the retention of reversionary rights in Canada’s Copyright Act and recommended amendments to the provision to enhance the utility of reversionary rights.
Earlier this month, the Committee on Industry, Science and Technology released its Statutory Review of the Copyright Act. Our brief was cited in the report, and we were pleased to see that the report includes recommendations to expand fair dealing and reversionary rights, which benefit creators who wish to make fair use or to regain rights to their previously published works.
The long-awaited Canadian copyright review report features numerous good recommendations, many of which were rejections of industry lobbying: a rejection of new restrictions on fair dealing for education, rejection of Bell’s FairPlay site blocking initiative, and rejection of limits on safe harbours in response to the so-called “value gap.” Yet the most notable recommendation is the committee’s support for fair dealing for the digital age by expanding its scope and ensuring that it applies equally in the analog and digital worlds.
there is a need to fix fair dealing by ensuring that it is not hamstrung in the digital environment. The Canadian test for fairness is consistent with those found in other countries, but there are barriers that exist for fair dealing in the digital world that are not found in the analog one. The most obvious example are Canada’s digital lock rules, which exceed the requirements at international law in the WIPO Internet treaties. As many warned five years ago, Canada has created a system that allows for unnecessarily restrictive limits on digital fair dealing. There is a need to fix this problem by establishing an exception within the anti-circumvention rules to allow for circumvention for any lawful purpose.Moreover, the fair dealing purposes should be expanded, ideally by adopting a “such as” approach to its list of enumerated purposes that would ensure the law remains relevant in the face of new innovation. Alternatively, given Canada’s prioritization of artificial intelligence, there is a need for a fair dealing exception for text and data mining similar to that found in many other countries.
The copyright review addresses all three issues. First, the committee
recommended adding much needed flexibility by allowing circumvention
for purposes otherwise permitted under the Copyright Act:
However, it agrees that the circumvention of TPMs should be allowed for non-infringing purposes, especially given the fact that the Nintendo case provided such a broad interpretation of TPMs. In other words, while anti-circumvention rules should support the use of TPMs to enable the remuneration of rights-holders and prevent copyright infringement, they should generally not prevent someone from committing an act otherwise authorized under the Act.
This change will help ensure that fair dealing rights are treated in an equivalent manner in both the analog and digital worlds.
The bill has a laudable goal: reducing barriers to copyright
enforcement for those with limited financial resources by providing a faster
and cheaper avenue to remedies. For many independent authors, creators, and
users of copyrighted content, copyright litigation in federal court is not
worth the candle; the high cost of litigation keeps many independent authors
and creators from enforcing their copyrights. A well-designed copyright small
claims process could fix this but, unfortunately, the deeply flawed CASE Act
isn’t that. While failing to limit the tribunal’s scope to the types of claims
and claimants that it’s best suited to and allowing recovery of excessive damages,
the small claims process as set out in the CASE Act would also cause harm to
many legitimate users of copyrighted works, including authors, educators, and
The CASE Act’s small
claims process isn’t limited to the problems a small claims court is
well-positioned to address.
The CASE Act’s small
claims tribunal isn’t limited to those independent authors and creators who
need it most.
holders who most need, and would most benefit, from a small claims process are
those independent authors and creators who can’t afford to press their claims
in federal court. Unfortunately, instead of limiting the small claims process to
those independent copyright holders that really need access to this kind of
forum to enforce their copyrights, the CASE Act opens the door widely,
welcoming in large corporations, corporate assignees, and entities that buy up
others’ copyright claims and profit from litigation.
We’ve already seen how copyright trolls and big content
companies have sometimes abused the federal court system to raise questionable
infringement accusations and threaten those accused with high statutory damages.
By not limiting enforcement through the small claims process to individual
creators, the CASE Act makes it even easier for these entities to get quick
default judgments and disproportionately high damages awards. Absent enough
protections for accused infringers and reasonable limits on damages, the CASE
Act would invite more abusive litigation tactics by copyright trolls and
opportunistic claimants while cluttering up the docket with cases that should
be resolved elsewhere.
The CASE Act’s small claims
tribunal’s jurisdiction is far too broad.
Some areas of copyright law are just too complicated, fact specific, and unsettled to be decided by a small claims process. The CASE Act tribunal’s accelerated process and limited discovery mean that it’s really only equipped to handle simple, straightforward infringement claims in settled areas of law. But the CASE Act doesn’t draw the line there. Instead, the tribunal has expansive authority to hear all types of copyright infringement claims including those that involve highly complex issues and uncertain areas of law. These complicated cases belong in a federal court with the expertise and resources to more competently address all the factual and legal issues involved. Leaving these cases with the small claims tribunal hurts both those authors trying to enforce their copyrights and those trying to defend their rights to use copyrighted works, as the tribunal won’t be able to adequately resolve the issues involved.
CASE Act does include a provision allowing the tribunal to dismiss a claim or
defense if the tribunal decides it’s not suitable, without a clear limitation
on the tribunal’s jurisdiction, it’s hard to see how it would make consistent
decisions to do so.
The CASE Act would create new opportunities for abusive litigation
The CASE Act’s “default
judgment mill” favors sophisticated actors over independent authors and
The CASE Act’s opt-out provision doesn’t provide independent authors (whether claimants or defendants) enough protection. Under the CASE Act, if someone accused of infringement fails to opt-out of the small claims process within 60 days of receiving notice of the claim, the small claims tribunal can enter a default judgment in favor of the claimant and award her damages. This judgment can then be enforced by the claimant in federal court. While this opt-out procedure is supposed to provide some protection for the accused, there’s a strong likelihood that authors, educators, and small creators without sophisticated legal knowledge or representation may not fully understand the implications and may ignore the notice – ending up on the hook for substantial damages awards without a meaningful opportunity to appeal. This quick and easy way to obtain default judgments is likely to create a “default judgment mill,” where big content companies and copyright trolls can churn out a mass of default judgments and high damages awards against unsophisticated individuals.
The CASE Act’s statutory damages framework invites abuse.
There may be a role for a reasonably statutory small framework in a small claims tribunal when damages from infringement are difficult or impossible to prove. However, while substantially lower than the statutory damages available in federal court, the CASE Act’s statutory damages are still excessively high and are available in all cases. Under the CASE Act, claimants who timely registered their works can request up to $15,000 per work infringed, with a total limit of $30,000 per proceeding. Those who failed to timely register their works can request up to $7,500 per work infringed, with a limit of $15,000 per proceeding. As copyright law experts have pointed out, in federal court, the availability of excessive statutory damages has made it easy for unscrupulous plaintiffs to intimidate and extract settlements from individuals accused of infringement. Faced with the risk of a high statutory award, many defendants opt to settle, even when they have a valid defense. And without standards to guide those awards, copyright litigation is an unpredictable venture. With lower barriers for plaintiffs and a disproportionate statutory damages framework, the CASE Act could make these problems even worse.
As concerned scholarshave noted, The CASE Act’s statutory damages framework won’t just harm defendants, though. It will also create an incentive for sophisticated or well-resourced defendants to strategically opt out of the small claims process when they think the claimant won’t be able to pursue her claim in federal court. This would undermine the CASE Act’s core objective, returning independent authors and creators to today’s unsatisfactory status quo.
Would the CASE Act tribunal be a fair one?
The CASE Act’s
limitations on appeal make it unduly difficult for parties to get meaningful
independent review of tribunal decisions.
Independent judicial review is essential to ensuring that
any tribunal operates fairly and arrives at the correct result. The CASE Act,
however, narrowly restricts the ability of either party to seek review of the
tribunal’s decisions in federal court. Under the CASE Act, parties can ask the
tribunal to reconsider a determination, and, with an additional fee, parties
can ask the Register to review the tribunal’s refusal to reconsider on abuse of
discretion grounds. Independent review by a court is only available in on the
grounds of “fraud, corruption, misrepresentation, or other misconduct,” or if
the tribunal exceeded its authority or failed to render a final decision.
Default judgments are only reviewable on grounds of excusable neglect. By
restricting the grounds for appeal, the CASE Act would leave erroneous tribunal
decisions essentially unreviewable and unjustly wronged parties with no where
to turn for relief.
The Copyright Office probably isn’t the right place for a copyright small
A tribunal within the copyright office, designed to serve copyright claimants, and with officers selected and recommended by the Register of Copyrights may end up friendlier towards copyright claimants, and less receptive to arguments that a contested use is legitimate or qualifies as fair use. In concert with the limitations on appeal of tribunal decisions, this could create a forum inclined to issue more favorable judgments for big content companies and other copyright claimants, and in the process, harm those authors, educators, and creators defending their right to use copyrighted works.
Authors Alliance founder and law professor Pamela Samuelson points out that placing the tribunal within the Copyright Office could also run afoul of the United States Constitution. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that infringement claims belong in the federal courts. Placing some copyright infringement claims in an administrative forum may be unconstitutional under Supreme Court precedent.
Authors Deserve Better
Than the CASE Act.
Independent authors and creators should have access to a low cost way to enforce their copyrights and vindicate their right to use others’ copyrighted works. We support a fair, unbiased small claims process that doesn’t invite abuse and wreak havoc on copyright law. If Congress is serious about fixing Copyright’s small claims problem, it needs to do better than the CASE Act. It can start by listening to the numerous educators, scholars, librarians, technologists, lawyers, and public interest policy experts who’ve all pointed out the Act’s problems. If you want to learn more about the CASE Act, check out this paper by Authors Alliance founder Pamela Samuelson and Kathy Hashimoto, and this one by law professor Ben Depoorter.