16 June 2016Copyright

SCOTUS sets rules for attorneys’ fees in copyright cases

The US Supreme Court has today clarified when judges should award attorneys’ fees in copyright cases, saying that although “objective reasonableness” carries weight, courts must view cases on “their own terms”.

The case, called Kirtsaeng v John Wiley, centres on an earlier Supreme Court ruling that saw Supap Kirtsaeng, a student from Cornell University, cleared of copyright infringement under the first sale doctrine.

Kirtsaeng had been re-selling copies of John Wiley-published books on eBay that his relatives had bought at reduced prices abroad.

The dispute went all the way up to the Supreme Court after both the US District Court for the Southern District of New York and the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found in favour of John Wiley.

In 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that legally purchased textbooks and other goods can be re-sold online and in discount stores without infringing US copyright law, and sent the case back to the Second Circuit.

When the dispute returned to the Second Circuit, Kirtsaeng’s request for attorneys’ fees was rejected on the grounds that Wiley’s copyright claim was “objectively reasonable”.

In April this year, WIPR reported that Kirtsaeng had filed a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court and argued that if the case was litigated in other federal appeals courts, his claim for attorneys’ fees would have succeeded.

The Supreme Court unanimously found today that “we vacate the decision ... so that the district court can take another look at Kirtsaeng’s fee application”.

It also clarified when judges should award attorneys’ fees in copyright cases, saying: “Although objective reasonableness carries significant weight, courts must view all the circumstances of a case on their own terms, in light of the Copyright Act’s essential goals.”

Justice Kagan, who wrote the opinion, added: “In sending back the case for this purpose, we do not at all intimate that the district court should reach a different conclusion. Rather, we merely ensure that the court will evaluate the motion consistent with the analysis we have set out—giving substantial weight to the reasonableness of Wiley’s litigating position.”

He added: “While the Second Circuit properly calls for district courts to give ‘substantial weight’ to the reasonableness of a losing party’s litigating positions, its language at times suggests that a finding of reasonableness raises a presumption against granting fees, and that goes too far in cabining the district court’s analysis.”

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More on this story

1 April 2016   A company that provides arts-related legal aid and volunteer programmes has stepped into a forthcoming US Supreme Court battle centring on whether attorneys’ fees should be awarded in a renowned copyright case.
19 January 2016   Publisher John Wiley & Sons and a graduate from Cornell University are heading back to the US Supreme Court after a writ concerning the standard for awarding attorneys’ fees in copyright cases was granted.
17 June 2016   The US Supreme Court’s decision yesterday on when judges should award attorneys’ fees in copyright cases should give “comfort” to lawyers and their clients, attorneys have said.