Killer Joe Nevada, LLC v. Leaverton: Dismissal but No Fees for Innocent BitTorrent Defendant
Addressing whether a copyright infringement action based solely on IP addresses is frivolous or unreasonable, such that attorneys’ fees should be awarded upon dismissal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of fees and found no abuse of discretion. Killer Joe Nevada, LLC v. Leaverton, Case No. 14-3274 (8th Cir., Dec. 4, 2015) (Benton, J.).
Killer Joe Nevada, copyright holder for the film Killer Joe, sued 20 “John Doe” defendants for making unauthorized downloads of the film through BitTorrent. The complaint identified the defendants by Internet Protocol (IP) address only. After subpoenaing various Internet service providers for the subscriber information tied to each IP address, Killer Joe Nevada amended the complaint to name Leigh Leaverton as a defendant. Leaverton denied downloading the film, and Killer Joe Nevada filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss its complaint with prejudice. Leaverton opposed the motion, arguing the action should not be dismissed unless the court awarded her attorneys’ fees. The district court granted the motion to dismiss and denied Leaverton’s request for fees. Leaverton appealed.
Leaverton asserted that the district court abused its discretion in declining to award attorney’s fees, but the 8th Circuit disagreed. The appeals court noted that pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 505, courts in copyright cases may use their equitable discretion to award attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party, but such an award is neither presumed nor automatic. Therefore, a denial of fees may only be reversed where a district court abuses its discretion by failing to consider a relevant factor, considering an irrelevant or improper factor, or committing a clear error of judgment in considering the sum of the relevant factors.
Leaverton first argued that the district court committed error when it ruled that Killer Joe Nevada reasonably sued the unnamed subscribers of each identified IP address. According to Leaverton, a plaintiff bringing a copyright infringement action must investigate whether the subscriber in fact infringed before filing suit. The Court, citing its 2005 decision in In re Charter Commc’ns Inc., held that it is reasonable for a copyright plaintiff to sue “John Doe” subscribers in order to seek further information about their identities.
The Court also rejected Leaverton’s remaining arguments. As the Court explained, it was not an abuse of discretion for the district court to find that Killer Joe Nevada did not have improper motives in bringing suit, given that Killer Joe Nevada dismissed its claims against Leaverton immediately after discovering she had not infringed. The district court also did not abuse its discretion by not explicitly addressing Leaverton’s financial status, and Leaverton was ultimately unable to cite any authority requiring consideration of a party’s financial status in determining whether attorneys’ fees should be awarded under § 505. Finally, Leaverton’s written submissions to the district court provided her with sufficient opportunity to make a record as to her request for fees.