Supreme Court Holds That Only Certain Costs May Be Recovered In Copyright Lawsuits

Rimini Street Inc. v. Oracle USA Inc., No. 17-1625

Today, the Supreme Court unanimously held that Section 505 of the Copyright Act, which allows prevailing copyright litigants to recover their “full costs,” does not authorize recovery of costs beyond those specified in 28 U.S.C. § 1920, the general statute authorizing district courts to award “taxable” costs.

Background: Oracle USA sued Rimini Street, a provider of third-party software-maintenance services, for infringing various Oracle copyrights. A jury found Rimini Street liable for copyright infringement. The district court ordered Rimini Street to pay Oracle attorney’s fees, taxable costs, and $12.8 million for other litigation expenses (including expert witness and discovery costs). These litigation expenses are not covered by 28 U.S.C. § 1920, the general statute authorizing federal courts to award “taxable” costs to prevailing parties; that statute authorizes only the award of six enumerated categories of costs, including various court fees, certain transcript and printing costs, costs of court-appointed experts, and certain costs regarding interpreters. The district court thus rested its award of litigation expenses on Section 505 of the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 505), which provides that a district court may “allow the recovery of full costs” to a prevailing party, along with “a reasonable attorney’s fee.” The Ninth Circuit affirmed the award of litigation expenses, holding that the term “full costs” in Section 505 is not limited to the categories of costs specifically enumerated in 28 U.S.C. § 1920.

Issue: Whether the Copyright Act’s provision authorizing awards of “full costs,” 17 U.S.C. § 505, is limited to the categories and amounts of costs taxable under 28 U.S.C. § 1920, or also authorizes an award of expert witness fees and other “non-taxable” expenses.

Court’s Holding: In an opinion authored by Justice Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision. The Court explained that the general taxable costs statute “in essence define[s] what the term ‘costs’ encompasses” for purposes of any federal statute that provides for an award of costs, including Section 17 U.S.C. § 505. If Congress wishes to authorize costs beyond those specifically enumerated in 28 U.S.C. § 1920, the Court held, it must do so expressly in the text of a statute – and it did not do so in 17 U.S.C. § 505.

What it Means: Barring an amendment to the Copyright Act, district courts have no authority to award prevailing parties in copyright cases any litigation expenses (such as expert witness fees and discovery expenses) that are not covered by 28 U.S.C. § 1920.