What are the full costs that a copyright plaintiff can recover? RIMINI v. ORACLE

What are the full costs that a copyright plaintiff can recover? RIMINI v. ORACLE

A copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the creator of a new expressive work of authorship.  United States copyright law uses the term author to describe a broad group of creative people that can be granted copyright protection for their work.  Artists, musicians, photographers and computer programmers all fall under the definition of an author for the purposes of copyright law in the United States.  When one of these creative vocations creates a new expressive work, the creator is granted a copyright to the work.  A copyright can be registered with the United States Copyright Office to gain additional rights, but registration is not necessary for a copyright to be granted.  The owner of a copyright is granted the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, transmit and prepare derivative works based on the original.  If someone other than the copyright owner attempts to exercise one of these exclusive rights that can be considered copyright infringement.  A copyright owner can attempt to stop copyright infringement by filing a lawsuit which requests an injunction and get monetary damages for copyright infringement which has already occurred.

Damages are an important aspect of copyright law.  While some copyright owners might get moral satisfaction in getting a judgment against someone who infringed on their copyright, most people are in the business of making money.  A copyright owner typically files a copyright infringement lawsuit because the infringement is taking money out of the copyright owner’s pocket.  The copyright owner files a copyright infringement lawsuit with the purpose of getting that lost money back.  If the cost of filing a lawsuit is greater than the judgment a copyright owner could hope to win at trial, it does not make financial sense to file a copyright infringement lawsuit.

The damages that can be awarded in a copyright infringement lawsuit in the United States are itemized in 17 U.S.C. § 504 and § 505.  § 504 allows a copyright plaintiff to be awarded actual and statutory damages.  Actual damages would be actual damages suffered by the copyright owner as a result of the infringement, as well as any profits of the infringer that are attributable to the infringement.  Statutory damages can be a set amount of up to $150,000 per infringement. § 505 allows a copyright plaintiff to be awarded costs and attorney’s fees.  The definition of attorney’s fees is relatively easy to understand, however the definitions of costs is ambiguous.  This ambiguity in the law has lead to differing opinions between the different circuit courts about what can be considered a “cost”.  Some circuits interpret costs to mean all the costs incurred by a party in a copyright infringement lawsuit, other circuits have limited the definition of costs to six categories of costs in 28 U. S. C. §§1821 and 1920.

This leads to the question – What costs are available to the winning party in a copyright infringement lawsuit?

The case which answers this question is RIMINI STREET INC. v. ORACLE USA INC., 17-1625 (U.S. 2019).  This case involves a dispute between a software publisher and a company that resells software.  A jury awarded Oracle damages after finding that Rimini Street had infringed various Oracle copyrights. After judgment, the District Court also awarded Oracle fees and costs, including $12.8 million for litigation expenses such as expert witnesses, e-discovery, and jury consulting. In affirming the $12.8 million award, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that it covered expenses not included within the six categories of costs that the general federal statute authorizing district courts to award costs, 28 U. S. C. §§1821 and 1920, provides may be awarded against a losing party. The court nonetheless held that the award was appropriate because the Copyright Act gives federal district courts discretion to award “full costs” to a party in copyright litigation, 17 U. S. C. §505.  This decision was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that the six categories specified in the general costs statute, 28 U. S. C. §§1821 and 1920, may be awarded.  The court noted that Congress may authorize awards beyond the general statute, but the courts may not expand the definition of costs without authorization from congress.  The fact that §505 says that “full costs” may be awarded does not expand the definition of costs to encompass costs beyond 28 U. S. C. §§1821 and 1920.

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