Fee Dispute Hotline
(312) 907-7275

Assisting with High-Stakes Attorney Fee Disputes


News Blog

Category: Practice Area: IP Litigation

Article: Defense Strategy in Copyright Fee-Shifting Litigation

March 29, 2024

A recent Law 360 article by Hugh Marbury and Molly Shaffer, “A Defense Strategy For Addressing Copyright Fee-Shifting”, reports on case strategy in copyright fee-shifting litigation.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Unlike in Europe, litigants in the U.S. are generally responsible for paying their own attorney fees. Limited exceptions to the American rule exist.  For example, subject to the court's discretion, prevailing parties in Section 1983 patent and copyright litigation are eligible to recover attorney fees.

Although permissive fee-shifting is not isolated to copyright matters, copyright defendants face unique challenges because of the outsized impact Section 505 of the Copyright Act has on the economic incentive structure in all copyright litigation.  Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 68 could neutralize the omnipresent threat of Section 505 and serve as a mechanism for copyright defendants to recover post-offer attorney fees incurred.

In 2014, the American Law Institute launched a project for developing the first Restatement of the Law, Copyright.  More than 175 elected American Law Institute members — consisting of judges, law professors and experienced copyright practitioners — have spent several years drafting the restatement.  The restatement surveys copyright law as it is applied today, including the conflicting case law regarding fee-shifting and Rule 68.  In addition to the impending restatement, the U.S. Supreme Court has demonstrated some interest in copyright issues.

In Warner Chappell Music Inc. v. Sherman Nealy, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument Feb. 21 to determine the relationship between the discovery accrual rule and the statute of limitations provision contained in Title 17 of the U.S. Code, Section 507(b).  The intersection between Rule 68 and Section 505 is another unclear area of copyright law where copyright lawyers could benefit from the Supreme Court's guidance.

The Intersection Between Rule 68 and Section 505

The U.S. Congress and courts have struggled with economic drivers in copyright cases, the subject matter of which can range anywhere from a single infringing photograph to massive copyright disputes regarding new and emerging software algorithms.  In December 2020, Congress addressed one end of the economic spectrum in the copyright ecosystem by establishing the Copyright Claims Board.

The CCB is a three-member tribunal, which serves as an alternative forum for smaller copyright disputes up to $30,000.  The CCB, while still in its infancy, does nothing to address the pressures associated with fee-shifting in all federal copyright cases, however.  Section 505 permits the "prevailing party" to recover its reasonable attorney fees as part of costs incurred. Unlike in patent cases, where fee-shifting is limited to exceptional cases, there is no such statutory limitation in Section 505.

Without any guidance as to when attorney fees may be awarded under Section 505, copyright plaintiffs threaten attorney fees early and often in settlement negotiations.  The threat of fee-shifting significantly affects the alleged infringer's bargaining power and resolve in defending the case.  Regardless of whether Congress intended Section 505 to provide significant leverage to plaintiffs and shift the focus from the merits of the litigation to the costs associated therewith, the reality is that Section 505 heavily affects settlement negotiations.

Rule 68 was designed to encourage settlement.  Enacted in 1946, Rule 68 permits a defendant to serve an offer of judgment on an opposing party at any point until 14 days before the trial date.  The offeree then has 14 days to accept the offer. If the offeree does not accept the offer within 14 days, the offer is considered withdrawn.  If the final judgment is not more favorable than the unaccepted offer, the offeree must pay the defendant's costs incurred after the offer was made.

Rule 68 is overlooked and underutilized because costs are often insubstantial in most litigation. However, where costs may be inclusive of attorney fees — in Section 505 — Rule 68 is a powerful tool that could minimize the threat of Section 505 in settlement negotiations by weakening the copyright holder's claim to its fees and allow defendants to collect attorney fees incurred after the offer.

In Marek v. Chesny in 1985, the Supreme Court interpreted Rule 68 in connection with a Section 1983 fee-shifting claim.  In Marek, the Supreme Court confirmed that all costs "properly awardable under the relevant substantive statute" fall within the scope of Rule 68.  Where the underlying statute includes attorney fees in its definition of costs, attorney fees are properly awardable under Rule 68.  Section 505 expressly provides that "the court may also award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs."

The forthcoming restatement of the law copyright has addressed this topic.  Although not yet published, the American Law Institute has approved various chapters of the restatement, including the chapter discussing remedies. Comment (h) to the restatement's chapter on remedies acknowledges that Rule 68 affects Section 505.  The restatement discusses the Supreme Court's decision in Marek and presents the competing case law regarding when a copyright defendant is eligible to collect its post-offer attorney fees under Rule 68.

Defensive Strategy: Reining in Overly Aggressive Copyright Plaintiffs

Rule 68 can prevent plaintiffs from recovering attorney fees under Section 505.  Neutralizing the threat of Section 505 shifts the economic structure of the litigation and refocuses the parties' attention on the merits of the action.

Courts are granted broad discretion to award attorney fees under Section 505 and should engage in a "particularized, case-by-case assessment."  Nonexclusive factors for consideration include frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness, and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence.  Courts should give substantial weight to the objective reasonableness of the losing party's position, while still giving "due consideration to all other circumstances relevant to granting fees."

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court recently rejected the opportunity to clarify further the appropriate standard for awarding attorney fees under Section 505 in Hasbro Inc., et al. v. Markham Concepts Inc.  A reasonable but unaccepted Rule 68 offer does not operate a wholesale bar to a plaintiff's recovery of fees, but defendants should urge courts to consider an offer of judgment as a "circumstance relevant to granting fees."

An unaccepted offer of judgment may trigger several of the nonexclusive factors.  For example, failing to accept a reasonable Rule 68 offer could indicate that a plaintiff's motivation in the litigation is to obtain a windfall.

Relatedly, a plaintiff's failure to come down to a realistic settlement figure could show that the plaintiff presented an unreasonable litigation position.  Moreover, prolonged litigation — a result of an unaccepted Rule 68 offer — could reflect a plaintiff's intent to rack up attorney fees for both parties.  Each of these arguments could serve as a basis for the court to reject a plaintiff's Section 505 request.

Although the exact impact of Rule 68 is unclear in the copyright fee-shifting context, defendants could benefit from making creative arguments grounded in Rule 68 principles in attempt to equalize the bargaining power in copyright infringement negotiations.

Offensive Strategy: Maximize Recovery Opportunity

Circuits are split on the more difficult questions regarding when a defendant may recover attorney fees after an unaccepted offer of judgment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held in Jordan v. Time Inc. in 1997 that the copyright defendant was entitled to costs, including attorney fees, following an unaccepted offer of judgment that was more favorable than the damages awarded.  The court relied upon the mandatory language in Rule 68 and determined that the mandatory costs included attorney fees incurred after the Rule 68 offer.

Other circuits, however, have rejected Jordan, and require that the defendant also be the prevailing party to earn attorney fees incurred after the Rule 68 offer.  Applying Marek, those circuits have generally concluded that attorney fees must be properly awardable under the substantive statute to fall within Rule 68.

Under Section 505, attorney fees are only available to the prevailing party, and therefore, some courts have held that the defendant must be the prevailing party to recover post-offer attorney fees.  What exactly a prevailing party is remains elusive.  Because of the interplay between Rule 68 and Section 505, it seems possible that a defendant could recover post-offer attorney fees.  The Eleventh Circuit considered this argument in February in Affordable Aerial Photography Inc. v. Trends Realty USA Corp.

In that case, the defendant served an offer of judgment, which was not accepted, and the plaintiff later voluntarily dismissed the case without prejudice pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(2).  Although the court held that Rule 68 was inapplicable, it is conceivable that a copyright defendant could recover post-offer attorney fees under different facts.

What's Next?

Rule 68 and Section 505 certainly overlap, but exactly how they interact is less than clear.

Copyright practitioners would benefit from the Supreme Court's guidance on if and how Rule 68 affects permissive fee-shifting.  The Supreme Court has shown renewed interest in copyright cases generally, having reviewed fair use in Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith last May and the timing of damages in Warner Chappell Music Inc. v. Sherman Nealy in February.

Given the Supreme Court's recent interest in copyright issues and the many billions of dollars potentially at stake in attorney fees — particularly in the massive artificial intelligence copyright cases being filed in all circuits — the Supreme Court should give guidance on the relationship between Rule 68 and Section 505.  But all copyright defendants should seriously consider the role of Rule 68 in their litigation strategy.

Hugh Marbury is a partner and co-chair of the copyright practice at Cozen O'Connor.  Molly Shaffer is an associate at the firm.

Eleventh Circuit: No Fees After Voluntary Dismissal in Copyright Case

March 8, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Carolina Bolado, “11th Circ. Says Broker Can’t Collect Fees in Copyright Case”, reports that the Eleventh Circuit has ruled that a Florida real estate broker cannot collect attorney fees incurred for defending himself from a copyright infringement suit by an aerial photography company because the broker was not a prevailing party once the photography company voluntarily dismissed the case.

In an opinion issued Feb. 28, the appeals court affirmed a district court decision denying a request by real estate broker John Abdelsayed and his company Trends Realty USA Corp. for an award of their attorney fees and costs from Affordable Aerial Photography Inc.  That company had sued over the use of a copyrighted photograph on Trends Realty's website.

Abdelsayed and Trends Realty argued that they are entitled to fees under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68, which mandates a fee award if an offer to settle is not accepted and ends up being more favorable than the judgment obtained, and under the Copyright Act's cost-shifting provision.

But the Eleventh Circuit said they are not entitled to fees under Rule 68 because it only applies when a plaintiff has obtained a judgment for an amount less favorable than the defendant's settlement offer.  It does not apply in cases where the defendant wins a judgment, the appeals court said.  And because Abdelsayed and Trends Realty did not obtain a judgment, they are not prevailing parties in the suit and are therefore not eligible for a fee award under the Copyright Act, according to the Eleventh Circuit.

"The order of dismissal does not prevent AAP from refiling its claims," the appeals court said.  "And even assuming future action by AAP may be unlikely or now barred by the statute of limitations, those facts are irrelevant because the court did not rebuff or reject AAP's claims on any grounds."

Abdelsayed, who operates in the Palm Beach County market, was sued in August 2021 in the Southern District of Florida by Affordable Aerial Photography for using a copyrighted photograph on Trends Realty's site.  AAP moved to voluntarily dismiss the suit without prejudice a year later.

After briefing and a hearing, the district court granted the motion and dismissed the case without prejudice. The court ruled that if AAP were to refile its case, it would have to pay the defendants' reasonable attorney fees incurred in defending this case.  Two months later, Abdelsayed and Trends Realty asked the court to reconsider that order, claiming they were entitled to immediate recovery of their fees under Rule 68 and the Copyright Act. But the court denied the request.

On appeal, the defendants argued to the Eleventh Circuit that allowing this would create an incentive for a plaintiff to drop a case just before an expected adverse ruling, but the appeals court pointed out that the plaintiff can't do this unilaterally and that a dismissal must be approved by the court.  In this case, the district court held a hearing and found that the defendants would not suffer legal prejudice because their counsel was pro bono or on a contingency agreement, according to the appeals court.

SCOTUS Passes on Attorney Fee Awards in Copyright Cases

March 5, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Ivan Moreno, “Justices Pass On Hasbro’s Atty Fee Fight in Copyright Win”, reports that the U.S. Supreme Court denied Hasbro Inc.'s appeal to review the First Circuit's refusal to award its lawyers nearly $2 million in attorney fees for prevailing in a copyright suit over the Game of Life. 

The toy-making company had argued in its November certiorari petition to the high court that the First Circuit uses a highly restrictive test to determine whether prevailing parties in copyright disputes are entitled to costs and attorney fees.  The First Circuit holds that fees are available "only if the plaintiff's position was 'objectively quite weak,'" Hasbro said in its petition.  That standard differs from other circuits, Hasbro said.

In refusing to award $1.9 million in attorney fees, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit concluded last year that the copyright claims brought against Hasbro and heirs of game developer Reuben Klamer were not objectively "unreasonable" and thus ineligible for the requested fees.

Lorraine Markham, widow of game developer Bill Markham, and her husband's company, Markham Concepts Inc., had sued Hasbro and Klamer's heirs for royalties for the iconic 1960s board game and control of its intellectual property.  Lorraine Markham and Markham Concepts filed their lawsuit against Hasbro and the Klamer heirs in October 2015, claiming Bill Markham invented the Game of Life and reached a deal with Link Research Corp. to market it to Milton Bradley, which later merged with Hasbro.

A federal judge in 2019 found too many people could claim inventorship of the game.  Bill Markham and his employees created the physical prototype of the game, but Klamer funded the project, according to court documents. Funding the project entitled Klamer to the game's copyright and designated him under the act's "work-for-hire" exception as the only person who could terminate the game's copyright.

Hasbro argued in its petition that Section 505 of the Copyright Act says courts "may" award fees to prevailing parties.  The Supreme Court has twice offered guidance on applying that standard, Hasbro said, but argued that "the circuits remain hopelessly divided."

"Two circuits unequivocally hold that courts should hew toward awarding fees.  Two circuits hold that courts should not lean one way or the other," Hasbro said.  "And one circuit, the circuit in which petitioners won on the merits, cautions district courts against awarding fees — applying the very rule this court has previously rejected.

Federal Circuit: More Fees Even With ‘Exceptional’ Ruling is ‘Nightmare’

February 16, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Andrew Karpan, “Dish’s Bid for More Fees Called ‘Nightmare’ By Fed. Circ. Judge”, reports that a Federal Circuit judge told counsel for Dish Network LLC that to secure more fees after the cable giant defeated a patent case in district court that was found to be "exceptional" to cover the costs of challenging the patent at the patent board would create "an effing nightmare."

Dish had argued to the three-judge panel that it should be able to bill a shell patent company for expenses incurred challenging the patent through an inter partes review at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board after Dish defeated the related patent suit against it.  The patent company, Dragon Intellectual Property LLC, was also appealing the $1.45 million in fees that Dish already won, along with the $1.86 million won by attorneys for Sirius XM Radio Inc. in a different case over the same patent.

But the hearing was dominated by arguments over efforts by Dish's lawyers to score more money out of Dragon IP and potentially its lawyers — taking up over an hour of debate among the panel of judges.

In that endeavor, Dish had cited the 1989 Sullivan v. Hudson ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, which gives the courts discretion to award fees to lawyers in a Social Security administrative proceeding.  According to the filings, Baker Botts LLP billed Dish for $673,905 in fees from patent board proceedings and wanted that money added to the $1.45 million. Sirius XM was hoping to clock $134,272 in additional fees.

U.S. Circuit Judge Kara Farnandez Stoll told Baker Botts lawyer Lauren Dreyer that she had a "practical" question about this argument.  "The district court is in the best position to determine whether or not something is exceptional or not because they're in the day-to-day running of the case.  That's not so with an IPR," she said. "The district court knows nothing about what happened at the IPR."  U.S. Circuit Judge Kimberly Moore was more wary of the possible effect of Dish's request in a legal climate where "every single patent litigation has a companion IPR now."

This would open up an entirely new avenue for victorious patent lawyers to litigate further, Judge Moore said.  "So, what you're now asking for is every time we're thinking about attorney's fees, anytime an IPR is successful, you're going to have the district court being put in what Judge Stoll was just articulating [is] the very awkward position of trying to evaluate the exceptionality of what was argued and decided, not in his or her forum but in an administrative forum," Judge Moore said. "That sounds like I'm creating an effing nightmare."

In response, Dreyer tried to argue that these motions would not come all the time if Dish succeeded just this once.  "I think [this case] is the exception; it's not the rule, and it only occurs in the rare cases in which there is frivolousness and an unreasonable manner of litigating," she said.  That didn't go down well with Judge Moore.  "With all due respect, every time you guys win, that's what you claim," Judge Moore told her, audibly annoyed at Dreyer's repetition of legalese.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo, on the panel by designation, acted to move the lawyers along in talking about "the circumstances in this case" and said there could be some general grounds for "sweeping the IPR" into a fee bid, as it "wasn't a waste of time [since] you didn't lose there."

Judge Bencivengo appeared occasionally mystified at the larger legal effort by Dish to go after Dragon in the first place.  "Basically, you have a hollow victory here if you win because plaintiff Dragon is a shell.  An empty shell. ... You can get zero.  They're judgment proof," she told Dreyer.

In addition to asking for more money, Dreyer said Dish was also hoping to get the appeals court to hold Dragon IP's lawyers liable for paying those fees.  But Dreyer made little headway again.  "All of what you discussed [with Judge Bencivengo] is not in this record.  You attempted to supplement this record with a deposition that would have brought to light all of those points.  They are not before this court, are they?" Judge Moore asked.

Dreyer acknowledged they were not.

"So we can't rely on any of that," the judge told her.

Judge Moore also took issue with how defense-side patent lawyers use "exceptionality" findings in federal courts.  "It feels like in a lot of these exceptional case findings, what really bothers me is that you all come in, and you complain that the district court should have done some sort of redo of all the things it didn't do in order to conclude that the originally asserted positions should have been deemed exceptional," she said.  "You're asking us to adopt a rule in which district court judges are now going to have to evaluate conduct, behavior and an outcome in a proceeding they had no involvement with and determine whether fees should be awarded for that in their forum, which would have evaluated the exact same issues under an entirely different burden of proof."

Yuga Labs to Receive $7M in Attorney Fees and Costs

January 29, 2024

A recent Law 360 story by Aislinn Keely, “Bored Ape NFT Copycats Owe Yuga Labs $7M in Atty Fees", reports that the artists accused of ripping off the Bored Ape Yacht Club non-fungible token collection have been ordered to pay creator Yuga Labs more than $7 million in attorney fees and costs, despite their concerns that Yuga's counsel at Fenwick & West LLP overbilled in the case.

In an order, U.S. District Judge John F. Walter awarded Yuga Labs just shy of $7 million in fees and an additional $300,000 for the costs associated with three experts deposed during the case, adopting the recommendation from Special Master Margaret M. Morrow.  The figure eclipses the $1.6 million in damages awarded to Yuga Labs when artists Ryder Ripps and Jeremy Cahen were found to have infringed Yuga Labs' flagship NFT collection.

Ripps and Cahen agreed to the fees to wrap up the case, but noted they may raise qualms about the fees on appeal.  "The parties seek to avoid further litigation concerning the amount of Yuga Labs' fee award, and defendants seek to preserve their objections to the amount of the fee award ... for purposes of appeal," the order says.

In a November joint statement to Morrow, Yuga Labs reported that its attorney fees were more than $12.6 million, and additional $500,000 in costs and expert witness fees, but said it would only seek $7.5 million in fees and roughly $300,000 in costs.  It doubled back to the $12 million figure when it couldn't find common ground with Ripps and Cahen, who said a reasonable total award would be $455,000.  In their objection, Ripps and Cahen argued that Yuga Labs' counsel at Fenwick maintains billing practices that "artificially increased hours, resulting in unreasonable fees."

They argued that the more than 14,000 hours billed over the two-year dispute is more than 20 times greater than comparable cases in the district, and that Fenwick used practices including duplicative time entries, where more than one attorney billed for efforts on the same task, and block billing, which bills multiple tasks in one billing entry.

The duo also argued that the hourly rates of $1,290 for a partner, $1,135 for a counsel, $1,030 for a fifth-year associate, $780 for a first-year associate and $515 for a paralegal are much higher compared to those charged by other attorneys in the Central District of California.

But Morrow found the Central District of California has approved rates in the general range of those billed by Fenwick, and while the firm's figures are high, they fell within the top end of the report referenced by Ripps and Cahen.  She did, however, recommend that the court adjust the paralegal rates down to $450 for 2022 and $500 for 2023.

While she didn't take issue with the block billing practices of the Fenwick attorneys, she did note that many of the descriptions in the time records related to duplicative billing were "so vague that it is difficult to discern what tasks were being performed or how they advanced the case," recommending a 45% reduction of fees from $12.6 million to the $6.9 million the court ultimately adopted.

In their December objection, Ripps and Cahen also claimed Yuga Labs racked up billable hours by litigating the case "in an unreasonable way," including unproductive settlement discussions, increasing its damages demand ahead of trial and a "frivolous" motion for sanctions.

"Yuga, a four-billion dollar company fueled by its animosity towards Mr. Ripps and Mr. Cahen, retained a huge litigation team at an expensive firm to wage a yearlong scorched earth litigation campaign against them," they said in the objection.  On the flip side, Yuga Labs argued the pair's own litigation strategy needlessly complicated and dragged out the case by repeatedly attempting to relitigate issues the court rejected.