In a dispute over the alleged infringement of a floral print textile design, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the plaintiff’s ownership of a valid copyright, but reversed and remanded for further proceedings on the issue of statutory damages, finding that the Copyright Act permits only a single award of statutory damages where multiple named defendants infringed one work. Desire, LLC v. Manna Textiles, Inc., et al., Case No. 17-56641 (9th Cir. Feb. 2, 2021) (Bennett, J.) (Wardlaw, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part). Judge Wardlaw’s dissent argued that the majority’s ruling limiting statutory damage awards was contrary to controlling Ninth Circuit precedent
Desire, a Los Angeles-based fabric supplier, sued Manna Textiles and several manufacturer and retail defendants for willful copyright infringement when Manna created a fabric design based on Desire’s two-dimensional floral print textile design, which Desire registered with the US Copyright Office in June 2015. Manna sold the copied floral textile design to the other defendants, which created and sold women’s garments made from the fabric.
After a jury trial, the jury found that Manna and two other defendants willfully infringed Desire’s textile design, and that two other defendants innocently infringed the design, and awarded statutory damages ranging from $10,000 to $150,000 against each defendant. The defendants appealed.
The Ninth Circuit readily affirmed the district court’s holding that Desire owned a valid copyright in its textile design, and noted that the district court was correct to extend broad copyright protection to the design. In particular, the Court confirmed that the Desire floral textile was sufficiently original and independently created, and that the originality of the stylized (rather than “lifelike”) flowers warranted broad protection.
The Ninth Circuit dedicated the majority of its opinion to its finding that the district court erred in permitting multiple awards of statutory damages. First, the Court determined that the district court correctly apportioned joint and several liability among the defendants by assessing which defendants were responsible for which acts of infringement based on the defendants’ distribution or sale of the fabric among one another or to end consumers. In short, based on a particular defendant’s upstream or downstream position in the distribution chain, and the “but for” cause of infringement within the chain, a defendant could be jointly and severally liable with certain other defendants, but not all defendants could be jointly and severally liable with all other defendants.
When statutory damages under 17 USC § 504(c)(1) (c)(1) are elected in lieu of actual damages and profits, ) the number of statutory damages awards available in a particular matter depends on the number of individual works infringed and the number of separate infringers. Here, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that there was only one work at issue (Desire’s floral print textile) and considered whether the Copyright Act authorizes multiple statutory damages awards where one infringer is jointly and severally liable with all other infringers, but the other infringers are not completely jointly and severally liable with one another. “No” was [...]