Center for Advanced Study & Research on Innovation Policy


CASRIP Newsletter - Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 5, Issue 2

Right to a Jury Trial for Assessing Statutory Damages in Copyright Cases

On March 31, 1998, in Feltner v. Columbia Pictures TV, Inc. (118 S.Ct. 1279, 140 L.Ed.2d 438, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1161(1998)), the Supreme Court decided that parties have a right to a jury trial for assessing statutory damages in copyright infringement cases. Reversing the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court used two tests: 1) whether the Copyright Act itself mandates a jury trial to decide statutory damages; or 2) whether the Seventh Amendment sets a constitutional requirement for a jury trial. Although the Copyright Act itself does not grant a per se right to a jury for assessing statutory damages, the Court concluded that the Seventh Amendment commands a constitutional right to a jury.

Feltner, the petitioner, had purchased three television stations, which had received licenses for several television programs from Columbia Pictures. After Feltner became delinquent in his royalty payments to Columbia, Columbia term inated his licenses to the television programs. Since Feltner continued to broadcast those television programs without authorization, Columbia sued him for copyright infringement. Finding that Feltner had willfully infringed Columbia's right, the trial court entered a partial summary judgment for Columbia on its copyright infringement claims.

Based on the Copyright Act, Columbia exercised its option for statutory damages rather than for actual damages and lost profits. The Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C.A.§504(c), allows a copyright owner to choose statutory damages before final judgment, with a floor of $500 and a ceiling of $20,000. But in the case of willful infringement, the court may award up to $100,000 in damages per infringing act. Finding that Feltner had committed 440 acts of willful infringement, the trial court assessed a penalty of $20,000 per act, awarding Columbia $8,800,000 in statutory damages. The trial court also denied Feltner's request for a jury to assess statutory damages. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision of denying Feltner a jury trial.

By first examining the statutory language itself and then the Seventh Amendment, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded, stating that Feltner did have a right to a jury trial. In examining the language of 17 U.S.C.A. §504(c), the Supreme Court held that the Congress did not specifically provide a right to a jury trial and the statute itself was silent on the issue of right to a jury in damage assessment. The Supreme Court considered the language of the Copyright Act, which states that damages are to be awarded according to what the "the court considers just" and according to "the court in its discretion" (emphasis added, 17 U.S.C.A. §504(c)(1) & (2)). Feltner argued that the word "court" in the Copyright Act referred to a jury; the Supreme Court rejected this argument.

However, the Supreme Court did determine that Feltner had a constitutional right to a jury trial under the Seventh Amendment. The Court found that in both early English and American legal history, copyright suits were heard at common law and before juries. Although Columbia contended that statutory damages were equitable in nature, the Supreme Court decided that "an award of statutory damages may serve purposes traditionally associated with legal relief," and thus statutory damage cases may be analogous to those cases heard at common law. Justice Scalia, in his concurrence, stated that a right to a jury trial could be construed from the statutory language itself. Scalia argued that a better approach would be if the court avoided the thorny constitutional issue--particularly when the problem could be resolved by taking a broader meaning of the word "court" in the statute. (Scalia concedes that this may not be the most obvious meaning of the word.)

After the Supreme Court's Markman decision (Markman v. Westview Instruments Inc., 517 U.S. 370 (1996)), which took patent claim construction away from the jury and allowed the judge to decide, the trend in intellectual property infringement cases appears to be moving towards more judicial discretion. But the Feltner decision may be an indication that copyright law is moving away from the direction of patent law, and that at least in copyright cases, juries will continue to play an important and critical role.

Elaine B. Gin

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