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Scott-Blanton v. Universal City Studios Productions LLLP

January 15, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Document No. 62




In the final scene of this litigious drama, the defendants submit a motion to recover attorneys' fees incurred as a result of the plaintiff's suit brought under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 et seq. The pro se plaintiff, Janice Scott-Blanton, argued that her novel, "My Husband Is On the Down Low and I Know About It" ("Down Low"), is the creative source for the short story, screenplay and motion picture "Brokeback Mountain." The court rejected the plaintiff's arguments and granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on March 20, 2008. In light of the court's decision, the defendants assert that the Copyright Act, specifically 17 U.S.C. § 505, allows for recovery of attorneys' fees and submit an expansive account of the time spent opposing the plaintiff's claims. The plaintiff retorts that she did not file her complaint with an improper motive, and in any event, the fees that the defendants request are unreasonable. Because some of the plaintiff's claims were objectively unreasonable, even after affording greater leniency for a pro se litigant, the court concludes that the purposes of the Copyright Act are served by awarding attorneys' fees.


A complete recitation of the facts in this case has been provided in earlier opinions of the court. Mem. Op. (Nov. 15, 2007) at 2-3; Mem. Op. (Mar. 20, 2008) at 2-6. To summarize briefly, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants' work "Brokeback Mountain" infringed her rights under the Copyright Act by copying her novel, "Down Low." Both before and after the filing of the complaint, thedefendants repeatedly warned the plaintiff that continued pursuit of her frivolous claims would result in a motion for attorneys' fees. Compl., Ex. N (Dec. 18, 2006 letter); Defs.' Mot., Ex. 1 ("Metalitz Decl."), Attach. 2 (Feb. 23, 2007 letter), Attach. 3 (Mar. 8, 2007 letter), Attach. 4 (Mar. 25, 2008 letter). Included in many of these letters are clear references to the dates of publication of "Brokeback Mountain"the short story. Id.

After filing her complaint on January 16, 2007, the plaintiff filed a motion for a preliminary injunction less than a month later. The defendants then filed a motion for summary judgment to which the plaintiff responded with a motion for discovery pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f). On July 19, 2007, the court denied the plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction, Mem. Op. (July 19, 2007), and on November 15, 2007, the court denied the plaintiff's request for discovery, Mem. Op. (Nov. 15, 2007). After thoroughly analyzing her claims, the court then granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on March 20, 2008 because no reasonable jury could conclude that the defendants had access to the plaintiff's novel before the completion of the short story. Mem. Op. (Mar. 20, 2008) at 1. In addition, the court determined that the alleged similarities between the plaintiff's work and the defendants' works that do not date back to the creation of the short story are either not protected under copyright law or are not sufficiently similar to constitute infringement. Id.

On April 18, 2008, the defendants filed a motion for attorneys' fees, attaching a lengthy account of time billed and expenses incurred throughout the proceedings. The plaintiff offered a brief response to which the defendants replied. The court now turns to the defendants' motion.


A. Legal Standard for Awarding Attorneys' Fees Under 17 U.S.C. § 505

Section 505 of the Copyright Act states that "the court in its discretion may allow the recovery of full costs by or against any party other than the United States or an officer thereof. . . . [T]he court may also award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs." 17 U.S.C. § 505. "There is no precise rule or formula for making [attorneys' fees] determinations" under the Copyright Act. Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., 510 U.S. 517, 534 (1994) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 436 (1983)). The Supreme Court has interpreted this section neither to provide for automatic recovery of attorneys' fees nor to require a party to have acted in bad faith. Id. at 534-35. Rather, the Court approved of courts considering such nonexclusive factors as "frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness (both in the factual and in the legal components of the case) and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence." Id. at 534 n.19 (quoting Lieb v. Topstone Indus., Inc., 788 F.2d 151, 156 (3d Cir. 1986)).

The court must apply these factors in an evenhanded manner that remains faithful to the purposes of the Copyright Act. Id.; Eddy v. Colonial Life Ins. Co., 59 F.3d 201, 204 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (alteration in original) (citing Fogerty, 510 U.S. at 534). This can be done "by encouraging the raising of objectively reasonable claims and defenses, which may serve not only to deter infringement but also to ensure 'that the boundaries of copyright law [are] demarcated as clearly as possible' in order to maximize the public exposure to valuable works." MiTek Holdings, Inc. v. Arce Eng'g Co., 198 F.3d 840, 842-43 (11th Cir. 1999) (quoting Fogerty, 510 U.S. at 526-27).Although this Circuit has not addressed the issue, the Seventh Circuit has further "refine[d]" the Fogerty standard by according a "presumptive entitlement to an award of attorneys' fees" for "the prevailing party in a copyright case in which the monetary stakes are small." Assessment Techs., LLC v. WIREdata, Inc., 361 F.3d 434, 437 ...

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