Court finds right to jury trial on copyright damages claim
WASHINGTON, D.C.–In late March, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that parties have a constitutional right to jury trials in copyright infringement suits seeking statutory damages.
The high court held that the Seventh Amendment — but not federal copyright law — provides a right to a jury trial on all issues pertinent to an award of statutory damages, including determining the amount of statutory damages.
Federal copyright law allows plaintiffs to sue for the actual damages caused by the infringement or for damages specified in the statute: “a sum of not less than $500 or more than $20,000 as the court considers just.”
The case arose when Columbia Pictures used its option under the Copyright Act to choose statutory damages rather than actual damages in its suit against C. Elvin Feltner, Jr., owner of three southeastern television stations which continued to broadcast Columbia-owned syndicated programming after his contractual license had expired.
The federal Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) rejected Feltner’s claim that he was guaranteed a jury trial when statutory damages are sought.
Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas found that the language of the Copyright Act of 1976 does not guarantee the right to a jury trial when a copyright owner chooses to recover statutory damages. The use of the word “court” clearly means a judge, not a jury, he wrote.
However, Thomas found that the Seventh Amendment allowed a party to choose a jury trial. The amendment’s application to suits at “common law” has long been held to apply to actions brought to enforce statutory rights analogous to common law causes of action, Thomas wrote. Prior to the adoption of the Seventh Amendment and the first federal copyright statute, common law copyright suits were tried in courts of law before juries, and the practice did not change with the adoption of a copyright law in 1790 or its revision in 1831, he wrote. Thus, the Seventh Amendment guarantee of the right to a jury trial in controversies whose value exceeds twenty dollars applies to statutory copyright claims, the Court held. (Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television Inc.)