You may recall Bridgeport Music as a company that claims to own the rights to various musical compositions and has a long history of suing anyone who samples even the tiniest bits of that music. The worst part is that there are very serious questions
concerning whether or not it really has the rights to much of the music it claims to control. George Clinton, for example, claims that Bridgeport used forged signatures to get control over his catalog. A recent Bridgeport case may be interesting for a different reason, though -- one that shows how the record labels have no problem contradicting themselves when on the receiving end of a copyright infringement lawsuit.
The lawsuit involved Univeral Music, who lost the original decision and was hit with a rather large fine. Universal Music appealed that decision on a variety of points -- and appears to have convinced the judge that the punitive damages tacked onto the copyright infringement claims were unconstitutional
. This is quite interesting because, as Ray Beckerman notes in that link, Universal Music is involved in a bunch of lawsuits where it's pushing for extremely high fines for individuals found guilty of infringement. In fact, Universal Music is actually on the receiving end
of a lawsuit that accuses the company of requesting unconstitutionally high fines. In that case, Universal Music is asking for fines that are more than 1,000x the actual damages. Pretty high, right? So what were the damages that Universal Music (and the court) found so unconstitutionally high in this case from Bridgeport? Turns out they were about 10x the actual damages. Funny how that works.
It seems like Universal Music may come to regret pointing out the variety of reasons
(pdf) why punitive damages can be seen as unconstitutional, as one would imagine that UMG's own filing will be raised against it in its own copyright infringement suits:
"While the Supreme Court has declined to adopt concrete or bright-line constitutional limits for the ratio between actual or potential harm and a punitive-damage award, the Court nonetheless observed that, "in practice, few awards exceeding a singled-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, to a significant degree, will satisfy due process."... The court cited a 4-to-1 ratio as being close to the line of unconstitutional impropriety."
Universal Music would likely claim in its own defense that it was complaining about punitive damages
, and in the other lawsuits it's fighting for statutory damages
, but there are already plenty of folks pointing out that there really isn't much of a difference
in many cases.