First Circuit affirms award of attorney’s fees to defendant in copyright infringement action, rejecting plaintiff’s argument that attorney’s fees are not appropriate because plaintiff’s copyright was not timely registered, and finding that plaintiff’s claim was “objectively weak.”The defendant, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), prevailed in this copyright infringement action. The district court awarded defendant attorney’s fees and costs, and denied plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration of this award. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the award, rejecting plaintiff’s arguments that attorney’s fees are not appropriate in this case because the copyright at issue was not timely registered, defendant was not a prevailing party, and the award was not reasonable.
The court held that the copyright was timely registered, and that Section 412 of the Copyright Act does not apply to a defendant who is successful in defending claims that it infringed. Section 412 bars recovery of statutory damages under section 504 and attorney’s fees under section 505 by copyright owners who fail to register the work before the alleged infringement begins. As the court noted, “there is nothing in the statute that prohibits fee awards in cases, like this one, of noninfringement. The reason is obvious: only copyright owners may register their copyright claims, the conduct incentivized by section 412. A defendant accused of infringing someone else’s copyright could not possibly comply with the statute’s registration criterion.”
Plaintiff also challenged ASCAP’s status as a prevailing party and the reasonableness of the fee award. Section 505 permits courts, in their discretion, to award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party. The court stated that a showing of frivolity or bad faith is not required; rather, the prevailing party need only show that its opponent’s copyright claims or defenses were “objectively weak.” In this case, the appeals court concluded that “[t]here is no question that ASCAP is a prevailing party. It initially obtained summary judgment on LAMCO’s infringement claims. We affirmed that ruling in significant part, but remanded because of disputed facts concerning one song. On remand ASCAP obtained a favorable jury verdict at trial and successfully defended that verdict in a later appeal.” Turning to the district court’s award of attorney’s fees, the appeals court stated that “[b]ased on its discretion and the weakness of LAMCO’s claims, the court awarded ASCAP a majority of those fees. We have carefully reviewed ASCAP’s documentation and the court’s rescript, and are satisfied that all aspects of the fee award fall comfortably within the court’s discretion.”