Court Limits Copyright Statutory Damages to Number of Registrations Owned
The availability of statutory damages in copyright cases provides plaintiffs with significant leverage in litigation. Statutory damages under the Copyright Act can rise as high as $150,000 per infringed work if the infringement is willful. Assigning damages based on the number of infringed works is different from setting damages based on each act of infringement. Thus, when a defendant makes multiple infringing copies of a single work the plaintiff is entitled to one statutory award for the infringement, although the plaintiff may choose to receive actual damages instead. Questions arise, however, regarding what constitutes a "work" when calculating statutory damages, both because significant differences in potential damages can hinge on the answer and because the Copyright Act does not define "work."
Sound recordings and their underlying musical compositions are separate works with their own distinct copyrights. To the extent a disputed musical composition is actually a different musical composition, it is a separate work which requires a separate registration to recover statutory damages. The touchstone for recovery of statutory damages is registration. 93 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1610. The court stated that "a sound recording that is simply a variation of a copyrighted musical composition does not in and of itself make it a separate 'work' for which statutory damages may be awarded." Id. at 1611. Accordingly, the court granted defendants' motion on the pleadings to limit any possible statutory damages award to plaintiffs' 215 registrations in the musical compositions.