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Supreme Court Rules on Attorneys' Fees Awards in Copyright Cases

On Thursday, June 16, 2016, the US Supreme Court ruled that Supap Kirtsaeng, the prevailing party in a copyright infringement litigation, should be entitled to persuade a lower court to enter an award entitling him to recovery of his attorneys' fees .

The plaintiff, a Thai student who financed his education in the United States by selling imported textbooks, previously won a case before the Supreme Court, convincing the Court that it is lawful to purchase copyrighted books abroad and resell them in the United States.

The Copyright Act provides courts discretion to "award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party." Federal Courts of Appeals have applied varying standards in determining awards for attorneys' fees in copyright infringement cases. In Mr. Kirtsaeng's case, the trial court denied his claim for attorneys' fees, relying upon a federal court of appeals decision focusing on whether the losing party's legal position had been "objectively reasonable." The trial judge noted the losing party met that standard in view of the judgment it obtained against the student at trial, its victory on appeal and its loss in the Supreme Court by a vote of 6-3.

According to Justice Kagan, who authored the unanimous opinion of the Court, the lower courts rightly gave "substantial weight" to the "objective reasonableness" of the copyright infringement claims brought against Mr. Kirtsaeng. However, Kagan added that "the court must also give due consideration to all other circumstances relevant to granting fees; and it retains discretion, in light of those factors, to make an award even when the losing party advanced a reasonable claim or defense." Those other factors include motivation, deterrence and compensation. Justice Kagan further stated "because we are not certain that the lower courts here understood the full scope of that discretion, we return the case for further consideration of the prevailing party's fee application."

This decision seems to signal the Supreme Court's desire for lower courts to employ a more thorough and measured approach in considering awards for attorneys' fees to prevailing parties in copyright cases. Whether this ruling leads to more awards of fees in copyright cases remains to be seen.

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