On June 16, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons. Academic textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (Wiley) owns the American copyright for textbooks and often assigns its rights to its foreign subsidiaries to publish, print, and sell its textbooks abroad. Supap Kirtsaeng, a Thai citizen who came to the United States in 1997 to study mathematics, asked friends and family in Thailand to buy the English-language versions of his textbooks in Thailand, where they were cheaper and mail them to him. Kirtsaeng would then sell these textbooks in America, reimburse his friends and family, and make a profit.
In 2008, Wiley sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement. He ultimately prevailed before the U.S. Supreme Court on the question whether the “first sale” doctrine--under which the owner of a “lawfully made” copy can dispose of it without permission of the copyright owner--applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad. On remand, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the “first sale” doctrine provided Kirstaeng with a complete defense to Wiley’s infringement claim. Kirtsaeng thereafter sought an award of attorneys’ fees pursuant to Section 505 of the Copyright Act, which allows the award of fees to a prevailing party at the court’s discretion. The federal Courts of Appeals have applied several different standards in resolving such fee requests. Here, the Second Circuit affirmed the denial of attorneys’ fees to Kirtsaeng based on the district court’s view that Wiley had taken an “objectively reasonable” position in the underlying litigation.
The U.S. Supreme Court again granted certiorari, to address the following question: What is the appropriate standard for awarding attorneys’ fees to a prevailing party under section 505 of the Copyright Act?
By a vote of 8-0, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Second Circuit and remanded the case. Justice Kagan delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court, which held that (1) when deciding whether to award attorney's fees under the Copyright Act’s fee-shifting provision, a district court should give substantial weight to the objective reasonableness of the losing party's position, while still taking into account all other circumstances relevant to granting fees; and (2) while the Second Circuit properly calls for district courts to give "substantial weight" to the reasonableness of a losing party's litigating positions, its language at times suggests that a finding of reasonableness raises a presumption against granting fees, and that goes too far in cabining the district court's analysis.
To discuss the case, we have Christopher M. Newman, who is Associate Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law.