Proposed Copyright Small Claims Court May Have A Bigger Impact Than The DMCA
from the watch-out-for-it dept
However, about a week ago, a small number of rights holders organizations, attorneys, and artists were invited by the Copyright Office for panels at Columbia & UCLA's law schools to debate the details of what a copyright small claims court should look like.
Here's some context about why these details are so important: if some of the more short-sighted special interests monopolize how these proceedings go, it could lead to a situation worse than bogus DMCA takedowns. Right now, internet users have to worry about abuses of the DMCA that lead to content takedowns; imagine adding to that a situation where it's even easier to have them bullied and brought into a real courtroom.
If this court is shaped without your input, we could be faced with a situation where it makes economic sense for media companies to sue many more average internet users over the photos they post on Facebook and Tumblr. The tens of thousands of Bittorrent filesharing lawsuits over the last two years might pale in comparison.
Even though it's a ways off from completion, a small claims system for copyright would have a bigger impact on the day-to-day of copyright law than any "reform" to copyright since the DMCA in the late 1990's, so we should pay attention.
Who wants a small claims copyright system, and why?
Some rightsholders say formal copyright lawsuits in the current system are too expensive. Evidence from the ABA IP law section shows that federal copyright trials are expensive (pdf), with cases where less than $1 million is at issue costing an average of over $200,000 in legal fees before trial, and nearly $350,000 once they've gone through to an appeal.
So the argument from some rightsholders is that it simply isn't practical to bring legitimate smaller disputes. This argument says that while attorneys fees and costs are available if you've registered your work, many smaller disputes involve unregistered works and fees and costs are unavailable..
The ABA's comments tried to give a sense of where the line is for attorneys to actually bring a federal lawsuit.
Approximately one-third of the respondents would turn away a copyright case where the likely recovery would be less than $60,000. But about two-thirds of the respondents would accept an uncomplicated case with a likely recovery of less than $60,000. Only about one-third of respondents would accept an uncomplicated case with a likely recovery of less than $30,000.In short, some rightsholders want a new forum to bring suits against small-scale defendants.
What is the practical impact of a small claims copyright court?
The organization I direct, New Media Rights, provides one-to-one legal services to all kinds of folks who would end up being both defendants and plaintiffs in the new system. Why we're participating so extensively is because we're in a unique position: we're (1) a user-oriented organization (for example, defending innocent internet-users who are wrongly implicated in filesharing cases). BUT we're also an organization for (2) independent creators: the type of people who make their livelihood by sharing their creativity online.
We see a lot of the bullying and trolling that takes place in the informal copyright system, where overreaching DMCA takedown notices and cease and desist letters are common. As many people reading this may know, bogus copyright claims are regularly misused to takedown otherwise legal content.
So we have to balance the need of independent creative people to get “justice” for their works being wholly misappropriated by bad actors, while keeping life sane for average internet users. These are some of the details that I shared with the Copyright Office to balance those interests...
How to keep a new small claims system fair?
1. Defendants need to have access to all defenses normally available to them including the fair use and DMCA safe harbor defenses. At least one misplaced comment suggested getting rid of the DMCA safe harbor all together and raising statutory damages to $650,000 (from $150,000).
2. Any small claims system will need to address current misuse of copyright law. Threats of lawsuits and settlement demands from copyright trolls are a big problem. Currently, because this abuse takes place outside the formal court system, there are few consequences for the troll. Our suggestions highlight the need to keep trolls out while allowing legitimate cases to go forward.
3. Defendants have to have adequate legal representation. Plaintiffs will have had months to prepare a complaint and consult attorneys. A small-scale defendant will have limited time and resources to figure out how to defend themselves. Small defendants without adequate representation shouldn’t simply get steamrolled or coerced into settlements by overreaching copyright owners (example: The mass filesharing lawsuits of the last two years).
Self-help systems like FLASH in Northern California, and legal assistance projects like New Media Rights in San Diego, provide help for these types of people. BUT as the Executive Director of New Media Rights, I can tell you that we don't have even 1% of the capacity to deal with and correct all of the misuses of copyright law that we see.
4. Defendants need to have access to fees and costs. Under section 505 of the Copyright Act, a court is permitted to award fees and costs to the prevailing party. Despite the Supreme Court's finding in the early 1990's in the Fogerty case that the standard is the same for plaintiffs and defendants, plaintiffs regularly get fees simply by registering while defendants have to show the plaintiff's lawsuit was in bad faith and frivolous. The result is a disincentive for defendants to challenge copyright holders, and an incentive for innocent defendants to settle. This is because even if a defendant wins in federal court, they will still likely have to pick up the tab for attorneys fees.
Why this is important and what you can do
Even though the small copyright claims discussion is speculative, making it difficult to simply be for or against it, it definitely isn't a discussion that should be ignored.
Internet users need to stay involved with the proceeding and make sure the new system is something more than a new venue for porn companies to coerce settlements out of internet subscribers. For now, the best thing we can do as internet users is raise awareness and be involved, so that by the time a full proposal is on the table at the Copyright Office, it includes safeguards that will make sure the new court provides a fair playing field.