Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc.

Decision Date01 March 1994
Docket NumberNo. 92-1750.,92-1750.
Citation510 U.S. 517
PartiesFOGERTY <I>v.</I> FANTASY, INC.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

(a) Fantasy's arguments in favor of a dual standard are rejected. Section 505's language gives no hint that successful plaintiffs are to be treated differently than successful defendants. Nor does this Court's decision in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U. S. 412, which construed virtually identical language from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, support different treatment. The normal indication that fee-shifting statutes with similar language should be interpreted alike is overborne by factors relied upon in Christiansburg and the Civil Rights Act which are noticeably absent in the context of the Copyright Act. The legislative history of § 505 provides no support for different treatment. In addition, the two Acts' goals and objectives are not completely similar. The Civil Rights Act provides incentives for the bringing of meritorious lawsuits by impecunious "private attorney general" plaintiffs who can ill afford to litigate their claims against defendants with more resources. However, the Copyright Act's primary objective is to encourage the production of original literary, artistic, and musical expression for the public good; and plaintiffs, as well as defendants, can run the gamut from corporate behemoths to starving artists. Fantasy's argument that the dual approach to § 505 best serves the Copyright Act's policy of encouraging litigation of meritorious infringement claims expresses a one-sided view of the Copyright Act's purposes. Because copyright law ultimately serves the purpose of enriching the general public through access to creative works, it is peculiarly important that the law's boundaries be demarcated as clearly as possible. Thus, a defendant seeking to advance meritorious copyright defenses should be encouraged to litigate them to the same extent that plaintiffs are encouraged to litigate meritorious infringement claims. Fantasy also errs in urging that the legislative history supports the dual standard based on the principle of ratification. Neither the two studies submitted to Congress while it considered revisions to the Act, nor the cases referred to in those studies, support the view that there was a settled construction in favor of the dual standard under the virtually identical provision in the 1909 Copyright Act. Pp. 522-533.

(b) Also rejected is Fogerty's argument that § 505 enacted the "British Rule," which allows for automatic recovery of attorney's fees by prevailing plaintiffs and defendants, absent exceptional circumstances. The word "may" in § 505 clearly connotes discretion in awarding such fees, and an automatic award would pretermit the exercise of that discretion. In addition, since Congress legislates against the strong background of the American Rule—which requires parties to bear their own attorney's fees unless Congress provides otherwise—it would have surely drawn more explicit statutory language and legislative comment had it intended to adopt the British Rule in § 505. While there is no precise rule or formula for making fee determinations under § 505, equitable discretion should be exercised "in light of the considerations [this Court] has identified." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U. S. 424, 436-437. Pp. 533-535.

984 F. 2d 1524, reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 535.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Kenneth I. Sidle argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Vincent H. Chieffo and Julia L. Ross.

Lawrence S. Robbins argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Carlos T. Angulo, Malcolm Burnstein, and Norman G. Rudman.*

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U. S. C. § 505, provides in relevant part that in any copyright infringement action "the court may . . . award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs."1 The question presented in this case is what standards should inform a court's decision to award attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant in a copyright infringement action—a question that has produced conflicting views in the Courts of Appeals.

Petitioner John Fogerty is a successful musician, who, in the late 1960's, was the lead singer and songwriter of a popular music group known as "Creedence Clearwater Revival."2 In 1970, he wrote a song entitled "Run Through the Jungle" and sold the exclusive publishing rights to predecessors-in-interest of respondent Fantasy, Inc., who later obtained the copyright by assignment. The music group disbanded in 1972 and Fogerty subsequently published under another recording label. In 1985, he published and registered a copyright to a song entitled "The Old Man Down the Road," which was released on an album distributed by Warner Brothers Records, Inc. Respondent Fantasy, Inc. sued Fogerty, Warner Brothers, and affiliated companies3 in District Court, alleging that "The Old Man Down the Road" was merely "Run Through the Jungle" with new words.4 The copyright infringement claim went to trial and a jury returned a verdict in favor of Fogerty.

After his successful defense of the action, Fogerty moved for reasonable attorney's fees pursuant to 17 U. S. C. § 505. The District Court denied the motion, finding that Fantasy's infringement suit was not brought frivolously or in bad faith as required by Circuit precedent for an award of attorney's fees to a successful defendant.5 The Court of Appeals affirmed, 984 F. 2d 1524 (CA9 1993), and declined to abandon the existing Ninth Circuit standard for awarding attorney's fees which treats successful plaintiffs and successful defendants differently. Under that standard, commonly termed the "dual" standard, prevailing plaintiffs are generally awarded attorney's fees as a matter of course, while prevailing defendants must show that the original suit was frivolous or brought in bad faith.6 In contrast, some Courts of Appeals follow the so-called "evenhanded" approach in which no distinction is made between prevailing plaintiffs and prevailing defendants.7 The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, for example, has ruled that "we do not require bad faith, nor do we mandate an allowance of fees as a concomitant of prevailing in every case, but we do favor an evenhanded approach." Lieb v. Topstone Industries, Inc., 788 F. 2d 151, 156 (1986).

We granted certiorari, 509 U. S. 903 (1993), to address an important area of federal law and to resolve the conflict between the Ninth Circuit's "dual" standard for awarding attorney's fees under § 505, and the so-called "evenhanded" approach exemplified by the Third Circuit.8 We reverse.

Respondent advances three arguments in support of the dual standard followed by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in this case. First, it contends that the language of § 505, when read in the light of our decisions construing similar fee-shifting language, supports the rule. Second, it asserts that treating prevailing plaintiffs and defendants differently comports with the "objectives" and "equitable considerations" underlying the Copyright Act as a whole. Finally, respondent contends that the legislative history of § 505 indicates that Congress ratified the dual standard which it claims was "uniformly" followed by the lower courts under identical language in the 1909 Copyright Act. We address each of these arguments in turn.

The statutory language—"the court may also award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs"—gives no hint that successful plaintiffs are to be treated differently from successful defendants. But respondent contends that our decision in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U. S. 412 (1978), in which we construed virtually identical language, supports a differentiation in treatment between plaintiffs and defendants.

Christiansburg construed the language of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which in relevant part provided that the court, "in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs . . . ." 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(k). We had earlier held, interpreting the cognate provision of Title II of that Act, 42 U. S. C. § 2000a-3(b), that a prevailing plaintiff "should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless some special circumstances would render such an award unjust." Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U. S. 400, 402 (1968). This decision was based on what we found to be the important policy objectives of the Civil Rights statutes, and the intent of Congress to achieve such objectives through the use of plaintiffs as "`private attorney[s] general.'" Ibid....

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