Getting Default Money Judgments In Copyright Lawsuits – A Case Note
Malibu Media, LLC v. Funderburg, 2015 WL 1887754 (N.D.Ill. 2015) discusses the governing standards for obtaining a default judgment in Federal court in a decidedly post-modern fact context. The plaintiff adult film producer sued the defendant for copyright infringement based on the viewer defendant’s unauthorized movie downloads.
Defendant orchestrated hundreds of movie downloads over a span of about three months through the BitTorrent file sharing system. BitTorrent basically allows a user to download component parts or “bits” of a file, send them to others (“peers”) who then splice the bits together to make a cohesive whole file.
When Defendant failed to respond to the Complaint, the plaintiff sought a default judgment of $27,000 – triple the sum of minimum statutory damages under the Copyright Act. See 17 U.S.C. s. 504.
The court granted the motion for default but only awarded a fraction of the damages sought. In doing so, the court stated the operative Federal court default rules:
– Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55 allows a court to enter a default judgment where a defendant fails to plead or otherwise defend a suit;
– On a default motion, the court takes as true, all well-pled allegations as to liability;
– A default judgment establishes as a matter of law that a defendant is liable for each of a plaintiff’s claims;
– A plaintiff seeking default judgment, must show a “plausible” claim;
– If plaintiff’s damages are easily calculable, he can usually get a money judgment based on an affidavit alone;
– A default judgment can enter against a minor or incompetent person only if represented by a guardian, conservator or other fiduciary;
– Since minors frequently use the internet for downloading movies, a plaintiff usually must do more than offer blanket assurances that the defendant isn’t a minor.
Here, plaintiff stated a plausible copyright claim: (1) that it owned the copyright in the 12 movies in question; and (2) that defendant infringed the copyright. Courts distinguish between Internet subscribers and infringers: just because someone is an account holder of a given IP address doesn’t mean the account holder is the one downloading files.
Here, though, the court noted that defendant was connected to the infringing IP address and that there were hundreds of file downloads over a short period of time. Considered with plaintiff’s unchallenged complaint allegations, the court found that the defendant, an adult, was the proper defendant.
The Court reduced plaintiff’s damage claim. Under the Copyright Act, an infringer is subject to statutory damages ranging from $750 to $30,000 for any single infringed work. 17 U.S.C. s. 504(c). Here, the court found that while the plaintiff probably wasn’t a “non-producing troll” (someone who enforces copyrights just to extort money from people who are too embarrassed to fight a Federal porn suit), the court still found that a damage award three times the statutory floor was excessive.
The court ultimately awarded damages of $9,000 – $750 for each (all 12) movie that was downloaded in addition to attorneys’ fees of over $2,000.
This case provides a good summary of basic requirements for obtaining default judgments in Federal court. In a default case where a statute provides a range of damages, a default-seeking plaintiff will likely need to show intentional conduct to get damages that eclipse the statutory minimum;
While being tied to a specific IP address, alone, isn’t enough to definitively identify a defendant, it will go a long way in doing so; especially if there is other evidence connecting a defendant to a given address and the IP account holder doesn’t put up a fight (as was the case here).