On March 9, 2016, both the Southern District of New York and the Central District of California awarded attorneys’ fees to defendants in two separate disputes after they successfully moved for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ respective copyright claims. The New York case involved the Beastie Boys (and related parties), UMG, and Capital Records, while the California case involved the makers of the hit TV show New Girl, including Fox (and related parties) and WME.
Section 505 of the Copyright Act provides that,
In any civil action under this title, the court in its discretion may allow the recovery of full costs by or against any party other than the United States or an officer thereof. Except as otherwise provided by this title, the court may also award a reasonable attorney’s fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs.
17 U.S.C. § 505. Both courts applied the “nonexclusive factors” set forth by the Supreme Court in Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., 510 U.S. 517, 534 n. 14 (1994) in deciding to award attorneys’ fees. Those factors include the degree of success obtained on the claim, frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness (both in the factual and in the legal components of the case), and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence. Id. at 534. The New York court focused heavily on the objectionable unreasonableness of the plaintiff’s suit, while the California court – analyzing each factor in turn – found that the majority of factors weighed in favor of awarding defendants their attorneys’ fees.
In determining the amount of fees to award, both courts applied the “lodestar approach,” which multiplies the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). It was the defendants’ burden to establish that their fees were reasonable, including that their hourly rates were reasonable when compared to the prevailing market rates in their communities. See, e.g., Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 n.11 (1984).
The Court awarded the following fees and costs:
The Beastie Boys Defendants (Southern District of New York)
The Beastie Boys’ award included the following:
- Sought: 1,155.4 hours of billable work. Awarded: 1039.86 hours, deducted by 5% for block billing with “considerable detail” and 5% for duplication of effort with UMG and Capital Records’ counsel.
- Sought and awarded hourly rates of $678.23 and $675 for partners.
- Sought and awarded hourly rate of $560 for associate that had been with the firm since 2005.
Total approved fees: $591,274.79. The Court also approved $11,553.29 in costs.
UMG and Capital Records (Southern District of New York)
UMG and Capital Records’ award included the following:
- Sought: 464.6 hours of billable work. Awarded: 394.91 hours, deducted by 10% for block billing with fewer details and 5% for duplication of effort with the Beastie Boys’ counsel.
- Sought and awarded hourly rates of $715.44, $572.71 and $476.17 for the primary attorneys on the case. The court’s opinion did not specify whether these attorneys were partners.
Total approved fees: $207,367.65. The Court approved an additional $27,302.60 for those fees incurred in preparing the motion for fees, with the same deductions and reduced rates applied. The Court approved $8,098.90 in costs.
The Fox Defendants (Central District of California)
The Fox defendants’ award included the following:
- Sought and awarded 1,120.4 hours of billable work. The Court found that the time spent on each task was “reasonable under the circumstances . . . over nearly two years of litigation.”
- Sought and awarded discounted hourly rates of $701.25 and $552.50 for partners.
- Sought and awarded discounted hourly rates of $488.75, $466.25, and $340 for associates.
Total approved fees: $548,772.77.
WME (Central District of California)
WME’s award included the following:
- Sought and awarded 413.2 hours of billable work. The Court found that the time spent was “reasonable under the circumstances.”
- Sought and awarded hourly rates ranging from $500 to $650 for partners.
- Sought and awarded an hourly rate of $375 for an associate.
Total approved fees: $220,063.75.
In short, two separate March 9, 2016 decisions in California and New York federal courts have showcased the courts’ willingness to award fees to defendants that prevail against copyright infringement claims. This is consistent the Gilbert v. New Line Productions, Inc., et al. opinion from 2010, where the Central District of California awarded the defendants $801,130 in attorneys’ fees and $14,571 in costs, which was approved by the Ninth Circuit. See Gilbert v. New Line Prods., Inc., No. CV 09-02231-RGK RZ40, 2010 WL 5790688 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 6, 2010) aff’d in part, vacated in part, remanded, 490 F. App’x 34 (9th Cir. 2012); Gilbert v. New Line Prods., Inc., No. CV 09-02231-RGK RZ, 2013 WL 653967 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 20, 2013).