Statutory Damages
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No Matter How Many Touched the Flowers, Single Infringement Begets Single Statutory Damages Award

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 [...]

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Buzz-sawed: Give Copyright Credit or Face Statutory Damages, Fees, Costs

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s award of statutory damages where the defendant knowingly distributed a photograph without first getting permission to use the photograph. Gregory Mango v. BuzzFeed, Inc., Case No.19-446 (2nd Cir. Aug.13, 2020) (Park, J.).

Gregory Mango, a freelance photographer, sued BuzzFeed, an online media company, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), for using one of his photographs in a news article without first obtaining his permission and crediting him. Mango asserted copyright infringement, alleging that BuzzFeed removed or altered the copyright management information (CMI), a violation under the DMCA. Mango sought statutory damages of $30,000 for his copyright infringement claim, $5,000 for his DMCA claim, and attorney’s fees. BuzzFeed argued that it could not be held liable under the DMCA because there was no evidence that it knew its conduct would lead to future, third-party infringement of Mango’s copyright.

The photo at issue was of Raymond Parker, who was the lead figure in a discrimination lawsuit filed by federal prosecutors in New York. The New York Post licensed the photo and published it, including Mango’s name in an attribution known as “gutter credit.” A few months later, BuzzFeed published an article about Parker and used Mango’s photo. The BuzzFeed journalist did not ask for permission to use the photo; instead, he listed the name of Parker’s attorneys’ law firm in the gutter credit. The journalist, a six-year veteran at BuzzFeed, had written more than 1,000 articles for the company, all of which included a photograph, and it was his custom to give credit to the photographers by “name or by photo outlet.” However, in this case, he asked the law firm for a photo of Parker but ultimately downloaded the photo from the New York Post website himself and attributed the photo to the law firm.

Prior to a bench trial, BuzzFeed stipulated to liability on the copyright infringement claim. The district court noted that under “Section 1202(b)(3) of the DMCA, plaintiffs must prove (1) actual knowledge … that CMI was removed and/or altered without permission and (2) constructive knowledge … that such distribution will induce, enable, facilitate or conceal an infringement.” The court found that Mango’s gutter credit constituted CMI and that BuzzFeed knew that the CMI had been removed and altered without permission, rejecting the journalist’s claims that he had believed he obtained permission and that BuzzFeed had reasonable grounds to know that such removal and distribution was infringement. The court found BuzzFeed liable on both claims and awarded Mango $8,750 in statutory damages and $65,132 in attorney’s fees. BuzzFeed appealed.

The Second Circuit determined that the district court correctly applied the DMCA in the case, finding that the journalist had distributed Mango’s photo knowing that his gutter credit had been removed or altered without Mango’s permission and distributed it with a gutter credit of the law firm, knowing that doing so would conceal that he did not have permission to use the photo.

BuzzFeed argued [...]

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