The Copyright Small Claims Court will be commencing operations in a few weeks (late June, 2022), and Oliver & Grimsley is pleased to announce that we will be providing both plaintiff and defense services for copyright small claims actions.
Copyright small claims actions should be a cost effective way of enforcing copyrights in the United States, if the copyright holder is primarily seeking a determination of infringement, and willing to receive an award of no more than $30,000. There are some considerations to keep in mind, however.
One advantage is that Copyright small claims actions can be filed without having previously received a certificate of registration, and without filing an application for special expedited status (which is expensive). However, an application for a certificate of registration must have at least been filed at the time of filing a small claims action.
The ability to file small claims efficiently should also provide a slightly better basis for pre-litigation resolution, as prior to this, it has always been a bit of a poker game to figure out whether an actual full suit would be filed in Federal court. Federal cases are very expensive, and if the copyright was not timely registered (see note 1), no statutory remedies or attorneys fees are available. With the ability to file claims informally, for much less cost, and without significant risk of years of discovery, a defendant receiving a cease and desist letter will have to more carefully consider whether a small claims action might be filed. However, the defendant receiving a small claims complaint can treat that claim as a true case or controversy, opt out of the proceeding, and commence a declaratory judgment action in some remote location, so this risk is not mitigated with the small claims process.
The biggest problem with the small claims process is that the small claims court is not mandatory – it is elective. If a defendant has such a claim filed against it, it can “opt out” of the proceeding, in which case “If you opt out, the CCB will dismiss the claim against you, but the claimant can still bring the same claim in federal court.” See https://ccb.gov/respondent/. Therefore, a plaintiff could go to the trouble of filing the small claim, spending money and filing fees, only to have the defendant opt out, and then the plaintiff has to start all over again in Federal court. It is virtually never cost effective to file a Federal court claim in the $30,000 range, so it will be easy for defendants who determine their risk is only at or around that number, to opt out and thus bet that the plaintiff will not follow through.
On the other hand, if a defendant believes that the claim is higher than $30,000, and there is real risk of plaintiff winning and also collecting fees (see note 1) – then opting in might make sense for the defendant.
In short, there is no one answer whether a plaintiff should file in small claims, and no one right answer whether a defendant should opt out. However, as the process is currently set up, it is generally going to be more likely that a defendant elects to opt out, especially where the plaintiff failed to timely register their copyright, and cannot seek statutory damages and the collection of attorney fees.
Note 1: Under 17 U.S.C. § 412, statutory remedies and attorneys fees are not available to a plaintiff/copyright holder unless the effective date of registration is either within 3 months of first publication of the work, “or 1 month after the copyright owner has learned of the infringement,” https://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap4.html#412