The cost of litigating copyright infringement claims in federal court can be immense, taxing the resources of even a well-heeled content creator. For many authors, artists, photographers, and others, this immensity become overwhelming. And at some point, the benefit of pursuing infringement litigation is grossly outweighed by the cost. Consequently, many creators are effectively barred from asserting the full bundle of rights provided by a copyright.
Recently introduced federal legislation purports to change this state of affairs. The Copyright Alternative in Small Claims Enforcement Act of 2017, H.R. 3945 (“CASE Act”) melds elements of traditional small claims procedure, administrative law, and arbitration principles in an attempt to level the playing field. While the bill appears to have some serious deficiencies, its passage would be an interesting first-step towards putting some degree of power back in the hands of average, every-day copyright holders. Here are some key points:
The CASE Act would establish a three person board to hear small copyright claims. Parties would be allowed to represent themselves, and in-person appearances at proceedings would not be required. Rather, proceedings would be conducted by written submissions, and by “internet-based applications and other telecommunication facilities[.]” While the CASE Act does not set a formal schedule for proceedings before the board, it seems that a claim would proceed much faster in this forum than in a traditional court of law.
As with many administrative actions, the formal rules of evidence would be relaxed in CASE Act actions. It appears written discovery would be allowed, but there is no specific provision allowing for depositions. It also appears that the three person board would have very modest subpoena power, limited to commanding service providers to divulge the identity of alleged copyright infringers.
Factual findings would be subject to the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, and all decisions would require a majority of the board. Decisions of the board could be appealed to the United States District Court of the District of Columbia, but could only be overturned on the basis of fraud, misconduct, or other very limited circumstances. In this regard, the CASE Act resembles arbitration.
Participation is Voluntary
Under the CASE Act, participation would be voluntary for all parties. A petitioner would be required to serve a respondent, and a form of default judgment could be entered upon failure to timely respond. However, a responding party could immediately opt out of a CASE Act proceeding, and instead require that the claim be pursued in any court of competent jurisdiction.
In keeping with the spirit of small claims court, damages in CASE Act claims would be limited. In the aggregate, no more than $30,000 could be recovered in any one proceeding. Furthermore, recovery of attorney fees appears to be generally prohibited under the CASE Act (except in instances of bad faith conduct). This is a departure from traditional copyright claims brought under the Copyright Act, where attorney fees are available in certain circumstances if a copyright has been properly registered.
The primary problem with the CASE Act appears to be the aforementioned “opt out” provision. A respondent with deep pockets could opt out of any CASE Act proceeding, requiring the claimant to resort to a traditional court to pursue her claim, thereby nullifying a low cost option for those who don’t have the means to pour six or seven figures into full throated litigation. Without a mandate for all parties to participate in the proceedings, it could be argued that the CASE Act is essentially toothless in its current form.
Nevertheless, the mere existence of the CASE Act demonstrates that the plight of the individual artist, musician or other content creator is on the radar screen. With a few very important tweaks, its passage could serve make the copyright playing field a little more level.