Recovery of Fees and Costs in Copyright Litigation: Supreme Court Sets Limits

Costs recoverable by a prevailing party in a copyright infringement case are limited to the specific categories of costs allowed under the general federal status authorizing the award of costs by federal district courts. So says the U.S. Supreme Court in its unanimous decision in Rimini Street, Inc. v. Oracle USA, Inc. (March 4, 2019).

Oracle successfully sued Rimini Street for infringing Oracle’s copyrights. A jury awarded damages, and the district court awarded fees and costs, including a disputed $12.8 million for litigation expenses, such as expert witnesses, e-discovery, and jury consulting. The Ninth Circuit recognized that this award covered expenses not included within the general statute, but split with other circuit courts of appeal and held that the award was proper because Section 505 of the Copyright Act granted the district court the discretion to award “full costs” to a prevailing party in copyright cases.

The Court disagreed, holding that the term “costs” in the Copyright Act was limited to the six categories specified in the general costs statute (codified at 28 USC 1821 and 1920). The six categories are:

(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 material where copies are necessarily obtained for use in the case;

(5) certain docket fees; and

(6) compensation of interpreters and court-appointed experts, and salaries, fees and costs of special interpretation services.

Unless the subject matter specific federal statute authorizes specific fees (such as expert witness fees) beyond these categories, then any award of general costs is limited to those listed.

The Court rejected the argument that the use of the word “full” before “costs” authorized the award of additional expenses. It held that the adjective “full” did not alter the meaning of the word “costs,” but simply means all the costs otherwise available under law. The Court also rejected Oracle’s argument that “full costs” is a historical term of art with a broader meaning under prior copyright statutes in the United States and England. It found that case law since 1831 and historical usage did not, in fact, support Oracle’s position.

For more information about the implications of this decision, or for assistance with protecting your intellectual property assets, please contact the author, Edward Ramage, or any member of Baker Donelson’s Intellectual Property Group.

This article was originally published in the IAM Weekly International Reports at www.iam-media.com/.

W. Edward Ramage

Shareholder at Baker Donelson
W. Edward Ramage, a patent attorney and shareholder in Baker Donelson's Nashville office, concentrates his practice in the areas of patent and intellectual property law and litigation, including the protection and management of intellectual property asset portfolios. Contact him at eramage@bakerdonelson.com.
W. Edward Ramage