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Cabell v. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.

In copyright infringement action against producers of the motion picture You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, court awards defendants $1,000 in attorney’s fees after considering plaintiff’s financial circumstances.

Plaintiff Robert Cabell sued defendants, alleging that the motion picture You Don’t Mess With the Zohan and its marketing materials infringed his copyrights in works featuring a character named Jayms Blonde. The district court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and then moved for $568,485.63 in attorney’s fees and $767.78 in costs. The court granted the motion, but reduced the amount to $1,000 in fees.

The Copyright Act permits a court “in its discretion” to award costs, including a “reasonable attorney’s fee,” to the prevailing party in a copyright infringement action, based on several factors including frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness, and the need to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence. A claim is objectively unreasonable if it is “clearly without merit or otherwise patently devoid of legal or factual basis.” Hudson v. Universal Studios, Inc., 04 Civ. 6997, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18729 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 4, 2009).

Defendants argued that fees and costs are warranted because Cabell’s claims were objectively unreasonable. Defendants also contended that Cabell’s blanket assertions that defendants’ various works violate “all” of his depictions of Jayms Blonde evidenced frivolousness and bad faith. The court agreed and held that Cabell’s claims were objectively unreasonable and that an award is warranted.

According to the court, in deciding the amount of fees and costs to award, courts may consider a party’s financial circumstances, citing Shangold v. The Walt Disney Co., No. 03 Civ. 9533, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73541 (Oct. 11, 2006). Cabell claimed that he earned less than $10,000 in each of the last three years, that he does not own a car or any real estate, and has less than $2,000 in his bank accounts. The court also noted that Cabell’s landlord filed nine eviction notices against him between 2001 and 2007, and Cabell has seventeen liens and judgments recorded against him. “Taken together, these facts demonstrate that an award approaching $500,000 — or even the $50,000 sum Defendants suggest in their reply — would far exceed the Congressional goal of discouraging frivolous litigation. Therefore, this Court awards Defendants $1,000.” (citation omitted)