In Rimini Street, Inc. v. Oracle USA, Inc., 586 U.S. __ (2019), the Supreme Court of the United States held that an award of “full costs” for copyright infringement under Section 505 of the Copyright Act is limited to and may not go beyond the six enumerated categories of costs authorized under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1821 and 1920. These six categories are (1) clerk fees; (2) transcript fees; (3) printing and witness fees and disbursements; (4) copying fees; (5) docket fees; and (6) the compensation of court appointed experts and interpreters. See 28 U.S.C. § 1920. In addition, Section 1821 provides particular rates for the per diem reimbursement of witnesses. See 28 U.S.C. § 1821.

In the underlying district court litigation, a jury had awarded approximately $50 million in damages to Oracle USA, Inc. (“Oracle”) after finding that Rimini Street, Inc. (“Rimini Street”) infringed Oracle’s copyrights. Subsequently, the district court awarded Oracle additional fees and costs, including $12.8 million for “nontaxable” litigation expenses covering expert witnesses, e-discovery, and jury consulting. In affirming the damages award, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that these “nontaxable” litigation expenses are not included within the enumerated six categories of costs, but nonetheless held that the award was appropriate because the Copyright Act also has a separate provision, 17 U.S.C. § 505, which gives courts discretion to award “full costs” to a prevailing party in copyright litigation.

Justice Kavanaugh, writing for a unanimous Court, reversed the Ninth Circuit and held that the term “full costs” does not authorize the award of litigation expenses beyond the six categories of “costs” specified by Congress. As the Court explained, Sections 1821 and 1920 define what the term “costs” encompasses, and the term “full” is merely a “term of quantity or amount” which “does not expand the categories or kinds of expenses” that might be awarded as costs.

While Oracle argued that the word “full” authorizes awards beyond those enumerated in Sections 1821 and 1920, the Court disagreed: “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.”

What This Means for You

Going beyond the realm of copyrights, Rimini Street provides a background for the types of costs that may be awarded in any potential litigation. In its decision, the Court noted that Congress has enacted more than 200 subject-specific federal statutes that explicitly authorize the award of costs to prevailing parties in litigation. The Court noted that in cases related to such far-ranging topics as civil rights, disability rights, and the provision of expert witness fees, the Court has turned to statutory language to define the universe of costs that may be awarded. Litigants would be wise to ensure that any costs and fees awarded by a court are explicitly provided for by statute. Indeed, while Congress is free to authorize costs and expenses beyond the six enumerated categories, the courts may not do so absent the express authority of Congress.