Successful Bit Torrent Defendant’s Attorney’s Fees Request Denied

What happens when the copyright owner of a motion picture sues multiple “John Doe” defendants for copyright infringement through use of the BitTorrent protocol, but the copyright owner later dismisses the case?  Is a defendant who challenges the copyright owner entitled to attorney’s fees?

Killer Joe Nevada, LLC owns the copyright to the motion picture “Killer Joe.”  Killer Joe Nevada sued John Doe defendants for copyright infringement, identifying the defendants only by their Internet Protocol (IP) addresses.  Killer Joe Nevada identified Leigh Leaverton by name after subpoenaing Leaverton’s Internet service provider.  Killer Joe Nevada filed a motion to make Leaverton a defendant in the lawsuit.  Leaverton denied infringing Killer Joe Nevada’s copyright and counterclaimed for a declaratory judgment that she did not infringe.  Killer Joe Nevada then moved to voluntarily dismiss its complaint and to dismiss Leaverton’s counterclaim as moot.  Leaverton opposed Killer Joe Nevada’s voluntary dismissal unless she received an award for attorney’s fees.  The district court granted Killer Joe Nevada’s motion to voluntarily dismiss its complaint, dismissed Leaverton’s counterclaim as moot and denied Leaverton’s attorney’s fees request.  On appeal, the Eight Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.

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.      

An attorney’s fees award is discretionary under the Copyright Act.  The district court’s decision will be overturned only for an abuse of discretion.

A district court abuses its discretion when a relevant factor that should have been given significant weight is not considered; when an irrelevant or improper factor is considered and given significant weight; or when all proper factors, and no improper ones, are considered, but the court, in weighing those factors, commits a clear error of judgment.

(Opinion pdf pages 3 – 4).

Leaverton asserts an abuse of discretion in declining to award attorney’s fees. The parties agree she is a prevailing party. Attorney’s fees, however, are not awarded to the prevailing party automatically or as a matter of course.  Awarding attorney’s fees to a prevailing party is a matter for the district court’s ‘equitable discretion,’ to be exercised in an evenhanded manner by considering factors such as whether the lawsuit was frivolous or unreasonable, the losing litigant’s motivations, the need in a particular case to compensate or deter, and the purposes of the Copyright Act.

(Opinion pdf page 4).

The Eight Circuit held that the following district court determinations were not abuses of discretion:

  • that it was reasonable for Killer Joe Nevada to sue “John Doe” defendants to obtain the defendants’ IP addresses;
  • that Killer Joe Nevada did not have improper motives in bringing the lawsuit because it promptly dismissed the suit upon learning that Leaverton was not the infringer;
  • that Leaverton’s financial status was not a factor to consider in awarding attorney’s fees; and
  • that the district court need not consider the importance of the questions in litigation when ruling on attorney’s fees, as that is not a factor to be considered under §505.

The Eight Circuit further held that the district court did not commit a clear error of judgment in weighing the relevant factors.

This case is Killer Joe Nevada, LLC v. Does 1-20, No. 14-3274, Eight Circuit Court of Appeals.

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