The Supreme Court reversed a $12.8 million award to Oracle USA, Inc. (“Oracle”), finding that the phrase “full costs” in section 505 of the Copyright Act encompasses only the costs outlined in the general costs statutes, 28 U.S.C. §§1821 and 1920. Rimini Street, Inc. v. Oracle USA, Inc., No. 17-1625 (S. Ct. March 4, 2019).

Oracle develops and licenses software programs and offers software maintenance services. Rimini Street, Inc. (“Rimini”) competes with Oracle by selling third-party software maintenance services to Oracle customers. Oracle sued Rimini in the U.S. District Court of Nevada, alleging that Rimini had infringed Oracle’s software in offering its software support services. Oracle won the suit and was awarded over $90 million in damages and costs. Specifically, the district court awarded Oracle $12.8 million for litigation expenses such as expert witnesses, e-discovery, and jury consulting.

Rimini appealed the $12.8 million award to the Ninth Circuit, where the appellate court held that, while 28 U.S.C. §1920 authorizes district courts to award costs in accordance with six specific categories, the award was still appropriate because section 505 of the Copyright Act allows for an award of “full costs,” which Ninth Circuit precedent deemed is not limited to the six categories codified in section 1920. Oracle USA, Inc. v. Rimini St., Inc., 879 F.3d 948, 965 (9th Cir. 2018).

28 U.S.C. §§1821 and 1920 are general statutes that provide authorization for federal courts to award certain “costs.” Specifically, section 1821 provides for reimbursement of a witnesses’ per diem and mileage expenses. Section 1920 provides for costs with respect to the following six categories:

(1) fees of the clerk and marshal; (2) fees for printed or electronically recorded transcripts necessarily obtained for use in the case; (3) fees and disbursements for printing and witnesses; (4) fees for exemplification and the costs of making copies of any materials where the copies are necessarily obtained for use in the case; (5) docket fees under section 1923 of this title; (6) compensation of court appointed experts, compensation of interpreters, and salaries, fees, expenses, and costs of special interpretation services under section 1828 of this title.

The crux of Oracle’s argument was that the term “full” in section 505 of the Copyright Act should be interpreted more broadly than the general statutes and permit the award of expenses beyond the costs specified in 28 U.S.C. §1920. Justice Kavanaugh, delivering the opinion for a unanimous Court, disagreed. In particular, the Supreme Court found that, “absent [Congress’] express authority, courts may not award litigation expenses that are not specified in §§1821 and 1920.” Rimini Street, Inc. v. Oracle USA, Inc., No. 17-1625, 2019 WL 1005828 at *3 (2019). Therefore, with respect to the phrase “full costs” in §505 of the Copyright Act:

The word “full” operates in the phrase “full costs” just as it operates in other common phrases: A “full moon” means the moon, not Mars. A “full breakfast” means breakfast, not lunch. A “full season ticket plan” means tickets, not hot dogs. So too, the term “full costs” means costs, not other expenses.

The dispute here, therefore, turns on the meaning of the word “costs.” And as we have explained, the term “costs” refers to the costs generally available under the federal costs statute—§§1821 and 1920. “Full costs” are all the costs generally available under that statute.