Statement of the United States Copyright Office
before the
Subcommittee on Courts,
the Internet, and Intellectual Property,
Committee on the Judiciary

United States House of Representatives
109th Congress, 2nd Session

March 29, 2006

Remedies for Small Copyright Claims

The Copyright Office is pleased to present the Subcommittee with its observations on the issue of remedies for small copyright claims.

In preparing the Report on Orphan Works which the Office released two months ago, the Office was told by a representative of photographers that a new mechanism is needed to adjudicate small copyright infringement claims because the cost of litigating in federal courts is prohibitively expensive in many cases.(1) While the Office did not believe that this issue relates directly to the problem of orphan works or to the Office's proposed solution to that problem, the Office observed in its Report on Orphan Works that:

We are sympathetic to the concerns of individual authors about the high cost of litigation and how, in many cases, the individual creator may have little practical recourse in obtaining relief through the court system, particularly against infringements involving small amounts of actual damages. This problem, however, has existed for some time and goes beyond the orphan works situation, extending to all types of infringement of the works of individual authors. While there are some mechanisms in place to help address the problem, such as enforcement by collective organizations or timely registration to secure the availability of statutory damages and attorneys fees, we believe that consideration of new procedures, such as establishment of a “small claims” or other inexpensive dispute resolution procedure, would be an important issue for further study by Congress. It is not, however, within the province of this study on orphan works.(2)

In subsequent discussions over proposed legislation to address the orphan works problem, photographers have repeated their assertion that a new procedure and forum for adjudicating small copyright claims is necessary. While the Office does not believe that it is necessary or even advisable to address this issue in the context of orphan works legislation, the Office continues to believe that the issue deserves the attention of Congress. If the Subcommittee believes it would be helpful, the Office would be pleased to study the issue in a way similar to the way in which the Office studied the orphan works problem itself, and to report to Congress its findings as to (1) whether, how, and to what extent authors and copyright owners are hindered or even prevented from seeking relief for infringements of their copyrights due to the cost of litigation under the current system, and (2) if the current system does not provide adequate procedures and remedies for the adjudication of small copyright claims, what changes in the law would be advisable to ensure that authors and copyright owners are able, as a practical matter, to seek remedies for infringements of their works.

Anyone who has litigated a case—whether as a party or as counsel—in the federal courts knows that the costs of litigation are beyond the means of many Americans. Attorneys typically charge hundreds of dollars per hour for their services, and it is our understanding that contingency fee arrangements in copyright cases are relatively rare. In a typical civil case, after pleadings, discovery, motion practice and trial (as well as possible appeals), attorney's fees can run to tens of thousands of dollars or more, and other costs can run to thousands of dollars or more.(3) If, as the Professional Photographers of America have told us, photographers generally earn about $30,000 a year,(4) then assertions that they are unable to take advantage of the remedies offered by the federal courts may well be credible.(5) It is legitimate to ask whether the federal courts are hospitable to most small claims.

Of course, there are provisions built into the copyright law that are designed in part to provide even the copyright owner of modest means with a reasonable prospect of recovering not only compensation for infringement but also the expenses of litigation in a successful infringement suit. Unlike most areas of the law, copyright law permits a court to award a reasonable attorney's fee to a successful plaintiff (or defendant).(6) Moreover, a copyright owner may elect to receive an award of statutory damages of up to $30,000 per infringed work—and up to $150,000 per work in cases of willful infringement—in lieu of actual damages and profits.(7)

It is reasonable to ask whether these provisions offer sufficient incentive and sufficient assurance that the copyright owner will be able to afford the cost of litigation. In the past couple of weeks we have asked representatives of authors and “small" copyright owners about their experience in litigating infringement claims. We have heard assertions that in many cases it simply is not worthwhile to bear the expense of federal litigation no matter how meritorious the claim may be. We are not in a position at this time to evaluate the accuracy of those assertions, but it is not difficult to imagine that in many cases an author or copyright owner engaging in a rational analysis of the costs and benefits of litigation will conclude that in light of the modest value of his or her infringement claim and the relatively high cost of litigation, it makes no sense to pursue that claim.

Although the copyright law offers the advantages described above to copyright owners who pursue claims of infringement, another provision of the law arguably provides a disincentive to pursue small claims. Section 1338 of Title 28 of the United States Code confers upon the federal district courts exclusive jurisdiction over claims of copyright infringement. As a general proposition, the longstanding exclusive jurisdiction of the federal courts in this area is an important and positive feature of our system. Copyright law is federal law, and confining copyright cases to the federal courts is more likely to ensure consistency of decision-making. It is probably also fair to say that, as a general proposition, the quality of decision-making in the federal courts exceeds that found in many state courts.

But, as noted above, federal litigation tends to be expensive. While pro se litigation is possible in the federal courts, as a practical matter in most cases it requires the assistance of an attorney to navigate the civil procedure and substantive law. Although state court systems offer small claims courts, which handle claims of up to a few thousand dollars and are more congenial to pro se litigation, the federal courts offer no such alternative. As a result, because authors and copyright owners, unlike most other litigants, have no choice but to pursue their claims in federal court, the costs of federal litigation may weigh more heavily on them than on most others.

The Copyright Office expresses no definitive views on the extent to which the current system hinders the ability of authors and copyright owners to pursue small infringement claims, but from the foregoing discussion it is clear that there are serious questions about the effectiveness of the current system that merit further study.

Some have also asserted that the existing system for adjudication of copyright infringement claims can in some cases be too burdensome for defendants who are accused of infringement. While it is not difficult to imagine that a wealthy plaintiff in a copyright infringement suit could make the litigation very costly for a defendant of modest means, the Office is not aware whether this has in fact been a significant problem.

If it is the desire of the Subcommittee, the Office would be pleased to conduct a study—in a way similar to the way in which it conducted its study on orphan works—that would seek and evaluate information on the nature and scope of the problem and, if the problem appears to require further Congressional attention, would recommend possible solutions. Among the information that such a study might seek would be:

  • Statistical (if it exists) and anecdotal evidence as to the extent to which authors and copyright owners have foregone asserting claims of infringement due to the cost of litigation or other factors relating to the currently available fora and remedies.

  • Information about the range of amounts in controversy in suits for copyright infringement filed in the federal courts.

  • Information relating to the range of costs that authors and copyright owners have borne in pursuing claims of infringement, especially in cases involving relatively modest amounts in controversy.

  • Information about the practice of the courts in awarding attorney's fees in copyright suits, especially in cases involving relatively modest amounts in controversy, including the frequency with which attorney's fees are awarded, the extent to which the awards are equal to the actual attorney's fees expended by the prevailing party and the extent to which such awards are collected.

  • Information about existing use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms in addressing copyright infringement claims.

  • The extent to which collective administration and licensing resolves problems related to enforcement of copyright in cases involving relatively small amounts in controversy, and where such activity has been successful in ameliorating the high costs of litigation in federal court.

  • The extent to which trade associations, guilds, professional associations and other groups of copyright owners have been able to provide legal services or otherwise assist members in resolving copryight disputes involving relatively small claims.

To the extent that such a study might find problems that need to be addressed, the study would consider possible legislative or other action. Possible alternatives might include:

  • Amending the statute that confers exclusive jurisdiction over copyright matters on the federal courts, in order to permit state courts (e.g., small claims courts) to hear copyright infringement claims where the amount in controversy is small.
  • Providing for an administrative proceeding, perhaps in the Copyright Office, for determination of small copyright infringement claims.

  • Establishing streamlined procedures for adjudication of small copyright infringement claims in the federal courts.

  • Measures to facilitate the use of alternative dispute resolution, such as arbitration and mediation.

The fact that the Copyright Office has identified such possible solutions does not mean that the Office would necessarily endorse any of them following a careful study. Indeed, even without the benefit of further study it is apparent that there are benefits as well as disadvantages to each of these approaches.

As always, the Copyright Office stands ready and eager to assist the Subcommittee on this and other copyright matters.

1. See Comment of Professional Photographers of America, March 25, 2005, pp. 11-13, submitted in Copyright Office Study on Orphan Works [available on the Copyright Office website at [hereinafter “PPA Comment”].

2. United States Copyright Office, Report on Orphan Works 114 (Jan. 2006)

3. If expert witnesses are used, as is not uncommon in copyright cases, additional thousands of dollars or more in expenses can be incurred.

4. PPA Comment 10.

5. It may be worth noting that in diversity actions, the minimum amount in controversy required to invoke the jurisdiction of the federal courts is $75,000. 28 U.S.C. §1332(a).

6. 17 U.S.C. § 505.

7. 17 U.S.C. § 504(c). Attorney's fees and statutory damages are available to plaintiffs only in cases where the copyright in the work was registered prior to the commencement of the infringement or within three months after first publication of the work. 17 U.S.C. §412.