In recent years, file-sharers around the world have been pressured to pay significant settlement fees, or face legal repercussions.
These so-called “copyright trolling” efforts have been a common occurrence in the United States for more than half a decade.
The makers of the Adam Sandler movie The Cobbler are one of the parties actively involved in these practices. In one of their Oregon cases they recently settled with local resident Santos Cerritos, after a lengthy legal back-and-forth.
Cerritos eventually agreed to pay the statutory minimum damages of $750 and reasonable attorney fees. A substantial amount, but better than the $150,000 maximum damages rightsholders often want.
However, when the filmmakers announced their fees demand things took a turn for the worse. They wanted Cerritos to pay for their entire legal bill of $17,348, which is many times more than the damage award itself.
The accused pirate protested this request in court and in a recent ruling Oregon Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman agreed that the “fee-shifting” request is unreasonable.
The Judge notes that the damages amount in the settlement is already substantial and that it acts as a proper deterrent. That is enough. The defendant should not be required to fund the filmmakers’ copyright enforcement actions.
“In light of the substantial financial penalty already imposed, an attorney fee award is not necessary to deter further infringement, nor is a fee award necessary to encourage Plaintiff to continue to protect its rights, where Plaintiff has been vigilant to date and has the resources to police their copyright,” Judge Beckerman writes.
In a critical note, the Judge adds that these BitTorrent cases are creating results that are not in line with the goals of the Copyright Act. Instead, the threat of unreasonably high damages creates an unequal and unfair bargaining position.
“For this Court to award Plaintiff its attorney’s fees in this case would only contribute to the continued overaggressive assertion and negotiation of these Copyright Act claims,” she notes.
As a result of such overaggressive actions, several defendants have chosen not to defend themselves at all, opting for a default judgment instead. This isn’t purely in the interest of justice, but rather to exploit copyright law for commercial gain, the Judge suggests.
“A startling number of subscribers are failing to show up for Rule 45 depositions, and alleged infringers are more often than not choosing default judgments over litigation,” Judge Beckerman writes.
“By allowing this scenario to occur for several years now, the federal courts are not assisting in the administration of justice, but are instead enabling plaintiffs’ counsel and their LLC clients to receive a financial windfall by exploiting copyright law.”
Another argument against the high demand for attorney fees is the fact that the filmmakers unnecessarily prolonged the case. The case could have been settled early, but the rightsholder refused to do so, likely for financial reasons.
Keeping Cerritos’ financial position in mind, Judge Backerman doesn’t see it as appropriate to leave the defendant with more than $17,000 in debt that could have been avoided with an early settlement.
“If the Court were to force Cerritos to pay Plaintiff’s counsel his fee of $17,348.60, it would take Cerritos and his family years and years to satisfy that debt. It is a debt that was avoidable had counsel working together cooperatively to resolve this case.”
The Judge therefore denies the motion for attorney fees. While admitting that piracy is a problem, she doesn’t believe that these high costs are a burden an individual downloader should carry.
“Online piracy is a serious problem that demands meaningful solutions. Plaintiff has every right to enforce the copyright it holds, but not to demand that individual consumers who downloaded a single movie pay more than their share of the problem,” Judge Beckerman concludes.
Although Cerritos still lost the case and still owes the $750 in damages and $525 in other costs, he will be pleased with this outcome. Others who are in the same position will be glad too. It presents another hurdle to the ‘copyright trolls’ and makes it a little easier for their targets to fight similar demands.