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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Maverick Recording Co., et al. v. Harper

Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision granting summary judgment to plaintiff record companies for copyright infringement, based on defendant individual’s sharing of digital audio files, but reversed the lower court’s determination that the defendant was an “innocent infringer.”

The defendant is a an individual who used LimeWire and other peer-to-peer file sharing software to copy and share over 544 digital audio files with others over the internet. Plaintiffs are a consortium of record companies that own the copyrights to 37 of those digital audio files.

In 2004, the plaintiffs hired MediaSentry to investigate instances of copyright infringement over the internet. MediaSentry discovered defendant’s file sharing during its investigation and attempted to download the digital audio files from defendant. The investigator was able to download six complete digital audio files of the 37 at issue, plus portions of the remaining 31. The investigator also took screen shots of each of the downloads. MediaSentry was able to identify defendant as the person sharing the digital audio files by tracing the defendant’s Internet Protocol address.

The plaintiffs sued the defendant for copyright infringement, seeking the minimum statutory damages of $750 for each of the 37 infringed works. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that there was insufficient evidence that she had infringed some of the copyrighted works and that she was entitled to an “innocent infringer” defense. The district court held that the defendant was an “innocent infringer,” which allowed the court to reduce defendant’s liability to $200 for each of the infringed works. Both parties appealed.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed that there was sufficient evidence of the defendant’s copyright infringement. First, metadata from the downloaded and partially downloaded digital audio files demonstrated that the files contained copyrighted music. Second, a forensic expert found some of the copyrighted songs on defendant’s hard drive. Finally, the defendant never denied that she downloaded the remaining songs.

However, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s determination that the defendant was entitled to an “innocent infringer” defense. The innocent infringer defense allows a district court to reduce the minimum statutory damages for copyright infringement from $750 to $200 per infringed work. An infringer becomes an innocent infringer if he or she “was not aware and had no reason to believe that his or her acts constituted an infringement of a copyright.” However, if the infringer had access to the phonorecords for the infringed works, and such phonorecords contained a proper copyright notice, the infringer may not raise the innocent infringer defense.

The Fifth Circuit found error in the district court’s determination that the defendant’s youth and naiveté created a triable issue of fact as to whether the defendant could understand that downloading certain music constituted copyright infringement. The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court and held that the plaintiffs are entitled to minimum statutory damages of $750 per infringed work.

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