Lawmakers Endorse Copyright Small Claims Court

Currently the only way to obtain damages for copyright infringement is a full-fledged lawsuit in Federal court, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars at best, and more often hundreds of thousands in a worst-case scenario. Hence there’s a reason for the phrase: “Make a Federal case out of it.” 

That’s why key members of Congress have endorsed the need for a “small claims court”—or similar mechanism—for writers and other victims of copyright infringement by publishers, pirates and/or bootleggers, so writers can enforce their rights at a price tag they can afford.

While there are small-claims courts in every state,  they aren’t allowed to hear copyright cases because Federal courts have “exclusive jurisdiction” over them.

The NWU, fellow writers, photographers, graphic artists, musicians, and other creators of copyrighted work have urged Congress to create a simplified, affordable procedure, such as a small claims court, for copyright infringement claims. For many years, this issue has been an NWU priority for copyright reform.

Roughly five years ago, Congress asked the US Copyright Office to study and report back on this matter. The NWU submitted two sets of comments to the Copyright Office, and NWU members participated in Copyright Office roundtables in New York and Los Angeles. At the conclusion of its study, the Copyright Office recommended that Congress create a more accessible and affordable system for handling “small” copyright claims up with up to $30,000 in damages.

This year, Congress has begun to act on that recommendation and on requests from the NWU and other writers and creators. Two bipartisan bills to establish a copyright small claims process have been introduced in Congress this year: H.R. 5757 by Representatives Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Tom Marino (R-PA) in July, and H.R. 6496 by Representatives Judy Chu (D-CA) and Lamar Smith (R-TX) in December. Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Ranking Minority Member John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) of the House Judiciary Committee have also endorsed the idea.

No action will be taken on these bills before the end of the current “lame-duck” session, and these or similar proposals will need to be reintroduced after Congress reconvenes in 2017.

Unfortunately none of these proposals go far enough to help most writers upon whose copyrights have been infringed. For instance, they don’t stop a copyright “infringer” from insisting on a full Federal trial that most writers couldn’t afford to pursue. And some creatives would have to agree to a lower amount of damages to fit within small claims guidelines. But any of  proposals that would give writers enforceable rights over how our work is copied, distributed, and exploited would be a step forward.