No Copyright Case Too Small: Content Creators Rejoice or Casual Infringers Beware?
An office jokester emails a funny meme she copied off Google to a colleague. A tourist snaps a picture of a painting in an art gallery and posts it to his travel blog. A teacher prints copies of a recently published Internet article and distributes to his class. A teen reposts his friend’s Instagram picture on his own social media page. To these casual infringers, no harm has been done and there’s certainly no reason to “make a federal case out of it.” But to the copyright owners, these small acts of infringement mean something. Perhaps not enough to justify the expense and time required for a federal claim, but action may be worth pursuing on a smaller scale.
Enter the pending CASE Act, intended to protect the “creative middle class,” and a potential boon to small businesses and individual content creators, while simultaneously presenting a threat to the “micro-infringements” committed by the ordinary person throughout the day. Last week, the US House of Representatives approved the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2019 (CASE Act) by a landslide 410-6 vote. The bill is intended to create a Copyright Claims Board within the US Copyright Office that would hear copyright claims of up to $15,000 per work infringed, with statutory damages capped at a total of $30,000.
If passed by the Senate, the CASE Act is likely to be a welcome avenue for graphic designers, bloggers, photographers, authors, vloggers, and other individual and small business copyright owners to protect their works. Currently, pursuing copyright infringement litigation is limited to filing suit in federal courts, the cost of which can be prohibitive for many small businesses. The proposed Copyright Claims Board provides a more affordable avenue—effectively, a copyright small claims court—to enforce copyright ownership.
Supporters say that small businesses have long needed a more efficient and affordable means to enforce their copyrights. To this point, much of the unauthorized exchange and use of Internet-based works or smaller-scale copyrighted works has been difficult to police. In fact, June Besek, the executive director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at Columbia Law School, recently told the ABA Journal that many infringers knowingly exploit copyrighted material because they are confident they will never be challenged. (Anyone remember the flagrant use of Napster and LimeWire by teens in the late 1990s and early 2000s to illegally download music—excuse me, “file share”—with little fear of repercussions for their “small-scale” acts of infringement?). A number of organizations, including the American Bar Association, have expressed support for the CASE Act.
But that support, while widespread, is not universal. The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the proposed CASE Act on the grounds that it will stifle free speech and the open sharing of information. Other critics say that by lowering the threshold for infringement claims, lawmakers also are opening the door for “copyright trolls” to file nuisance infringement claims with the Copyright Claims Board. And many are less than keen on the idea that inadvertently unanswered copyright infringement complaints could cost ordinary Americans up to $30,000 in default judgments per proceeding—perhaps a small sum to a business, but potentially life-changing to many individuals—with very limited ability to appeal, under the currently proposed language of the Act.
Notably, as currently written, the small-claims tribunal established under CASE will be entirely voluntary, meaning the complaining party can elect to use the Copyright Claims Board, and the defending party may choose to opt out. But critics point out that the opt-out window is only 60 days long, and easily could be missed by an unwitting defendant.
Next, the Senate will consider the CASE Act, but observers believe it will pass with bipartisan support. The final language of the Act may be somewhat different from its current form, so stay tuned for more updates as the CASE Act makes its way through the legislature.
What the proposed CASE Act could mean for you:
Would-be plaintiffs (or defendants) appearing before the proposed Copyright Claims Board are encouraged to do so with licensed legal representation. Some have suggested that this small claims court format will allow parties to represent themselves without needing to incur the fees of legal representation. However, it is important to remember that, though the monetary stakes may be lower than in federal court, the complex legal nuances of copyright law, not to mention jurisdiction, service, discovery, evidence, joinder of parties, and expert testimony, remain the same and are best addressed by experienced legal counsel.
Owners of large copyright portfolios may find the CASE Act to allow greater leeway in defending their works against smaller-player infringers. Businesses with larger portfolios may wish to take stock of their protected works and develop an enforcement strategy, taking into account this more accessible avenue for enforcement.
Smaller companies or individual content creators, too, may find the proposed CASE Act to provide the freedom to assert their copyrights more aggressively than they have done previously. These companies and individuals also are encouraged to take stock of their copyright portfolios, and consider setting up infringement alerts through their legal representatives or third party vendors in order to take a more offensive stance.
On the opposite side of the court room, copyrighted work users are cautioned to think carefully about their use of protected works. Businesses and schools may want to consider updating policies on use and distribution of protected works, with a more conservative mindset. The relative ease of filing suit with the Copyright Claims Board may give rise to a more litigious “creative middle class.” And while the damages may be smaller-scale, the attendant legal costs may not be, and damages from multiple suits may add up quickly.