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Counts v. Meriwether

Following dismissal of two screenwriters’ copyright infringement claims against writers,  producers, broadcasters and distributors of television series “New Girl,” district court grants defendants more than $760,000 in attorneys’ fees under fee-shifting provision of Copyright Act.

Stephanie Counts and Shari Gold sued defendants, including Elizabeth Meriwether and Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. (the Fox defendants), and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment LLC (WME), alleging that the defendants’ television series “New Girl” infringed their unpublished screenplay “Square One.” On December 30, 2015, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the plaintiffs’ copyright infringement claim, finding that the plaintiffs had not presented a theory of access qualitatively stronger than that of bare corporate receipt, and, even assuming there was access, no reasonable jury could find substantial similarity as to any of the protected [TMP1] components of the two works. (Read our summary of the district court’s decision here.)

Defendants then moved for attorneys’ fees as the prevailing parties under the Copyright Act. The district court noted there is no precise rule or formula for making fee determinations, but that several “nonexclusive factors” guide a court’s discretion: (1) the degree of success obtained on the claim, (2) frivolousness, (3) motivation, (4) objective unreasonableness (both in the factual and legal components of the case) and (5) the need to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence.

The district court concluded that these factors weighed in favor of granting fees, and awarded the Fox defendants their requested $548,772 in attorneys’ fees and WME $220,063 in attorneys’ fees.

First, as to the degree of success obtained, the district court found that defendants achieved “complete and total success on the merits,” which weighed in favor of an award of fees. Second, it found that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit was objectively unreasonable, in both the factual and legal components of their case. Third, in terms of motivation or frivolousness, the district court noted that a finding of bad faith or improper motive is not a prerequisite to an award of attorneys’ fees, but that a court may be influenced by the plaintiff’s culpability in bringing or pursuing the action. The district court decided that, to the extent the plaintiffs presented unsupported allegations and mischaracterized the works at issue, they acted unreasonably. It did not, however, find a clear indication that the plaintiffs acted in bad faith, making frivolousness and motivation neutral factors in the analysis.

The district court also found that furthering the primary goals of the Copyright Act, as well as considerations of compensation and deterrence, weighed in favor of awarding fees. Defendants’ successful defense vindicated the purpose of the Copyright Act because their success secured the public’s access to an original work and encouraged the creation of additional original works. Moreover, an award of fees would serve the purposes of compensation and deterrence by encouraging valid copyright owners to fight for the protection of their works, and discourage other plaintiffs from bringing similarly meritless copyright suits.

The district court held that the Fox defendants’ request for $548,772 in attorneys’ fees for 1,120.4 hours of work between February 27, 2014,  and December 15, 2015, was reasonable, and that counsel’s billing rates were consistent with the prevailing rates in the Central District of California. It also held that the $220,063 in attorneys’ fees sought by WME for 413.2 hours of work between Jan. 30, 2014, and Nov. 30, 2015, was similarly reasonable and consistent with prevailing rates. The court found that all fees were recoverable under the Copyright Act, even those incurred with respect to defending a claim for breach of implied contract, because that claim was “related” to the copyright claim and based on the same allegations.