On July 17, 2015, Judge Schofield sitting in the Southern District of New York awarded defendants Shawn Carter (a/k/a Jay Z), Roc-A-Fella Records and Roc Nation, LLC (collectively, “Roc-A-Fella”) $253,409.99 in attorneys’ fees as the prevailing parties in a copyright infringement lawsuit. Mahan v. Roc Nation, LLC, et al., Case. No. 14-cv-5075 (July 17, 2015 S.D.N.Y). Plaintiff Chauncey Mahan (“Plaintiff”), a sound engineer, claimed that he was the joint author and copyright co-owner of a number of Jay Z songs based on his work with the artist back in 1999 and 2000.
After winning a complete dismissal of Plaintiff’s copyright claims, Roc-A-Fella filed an application to recover its attorneys’ fees. In granting Roc-A-Fella’s application, the court held that Plaintiff’s claims were plainly time-barred, having been filed more than 10 years after the songs at issue in the case had been released, and therefore were “objectively unreasonable.” The court further reasoned that awarding attorneys’ fees in the case would promote the interests of the Copyright Act by deterring frivolous lawsuits. The court was not persuaded by Plaintiff’s argument that the dismissal was “purely a technical win,” citing Second Circuit law that a dismissal on statute of limitations grounds is an adjudication on the merits.
The award of attorneys’ fees to Roc-A-Fella is a good reminder that bringing a copyright claim is not without risk, as an award of attorneys’ fees can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Consequently, a potential plaintiff should be aware of the standard a court will apply in exercising its discretion to award attorneys’ fees, should they end up on the losing end.
The Copyright Act authorizes courts to award reasonable attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party. 17 U.S.C. § 505. In 1994, the United States Supreme Court clarified the standard to be applied in determining whether a prevailing defendant in a copyright infringement claim should be awarded its attorneys’ fees. Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., 510 U.S. 517 (1994) (resolving jurisdictional split). The Court held that prevailing plaintiffs and prevailing defendants should be treated “alike” in awarding attorneys’ fees, thus doing away with the “dual standard” that had previously prevailed in the Ninth Circuit, whereby a prevailing plaintiff was generally awarded attorneys’ fees as a matter of course, while prevailing defendants were only awarded attorneys’ fees if it could be shown that the original lawsuit was “frivolous or brought in bad faith.” Id. at 520-21. While there is no precise rule or formula for determining whether a prevailing party should be awarded its attorneys’ fees, the Court provided a non-exhaustive list of factors for the courts to look to in exercising its equitable discretion, including:
- the degree of success obtained;
- objective unreasonableness of both the factual and legal arguments; and
- the need to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence in the particular circumstance.
Id. (citations omitted); accord Jackson v. Axton, 25 F.3d 884, 890 (9th Cir. 1994) (same); accord Bryant v. Media Right Prods., Inc., 603 F.3d 135, 144 (2nd Cir. 2010) (same).
Plaintiff has appealed the final judgment dismissing his copyright claims and the award of attorneys’ fees.