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Supreme Court Limits Categories of Litigation Expenses Awardable in Copyright Litigation

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In Rimini Street, Inc. v. Oracle USA, Inc., the Supreme Court resolved the question of what types of costs are available to a successful copyright litigant under Section 505 of the Copyright Act, which gives the district courts discretion to award “full costs” to a successful party.  In that case, Oracle prevailed at trial against Rimini and was awarded copyright infringement damages, attorneys fees, as well as an additional $12.8 million for other “litigation expenses” such as costs Oracle incurred for expert witnesses, jury consultants, and e-discovery vendors.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed that award, creating a circuit split as to whether those types of litigation costs were awardable under the “full costs” provision of section 505.  Justice Kavanaugh, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, reversed.

The Court started by noting that 28 U.S. Code sections 1821 and 1920 is general statute defining the types of costs awardable in district court litigation, which specifies six categories of awardable costs, in addition to witness mileage, none of which would encompass the types of litigation expenses at issue in Rimini.  The Court then noted that its prior cases interpreting the various cost statutes “establish a clear rule: A statute awarding ‘costs’ will not be construed as authorizing an award of litigation expenses beyond the six categories listed in §§1821 and 1920, absent an explicit statutory instruction to that effect.”  The Court then applied that rule, concluding that because the Copyright Act did not explicitly authorize the type of litigation expenses awarded to Oracle, the award could not stand.

The Court then addressed and rejected several arguments made by Oracle in defense of the award.  For instance, the Court held that the word “full” in the statutory term “full costs” did not permit courts to expand the definition of “costs” to include categories of expenses not included in the general cost statute. As the Court noted, “’full costs’ means costs, not other expenses” just as “a ‘full moon’ means the moon, not Mars.” The Court also brushed aside Oracle’s attempt to trace the term “full costs”  back to early English law, noting “courts should not undertake extensive historical excavation to determine the meaning of costs statutes.” Finally, the Court rejected the argument that its interpretation of “full costs” would render the word “full” redundant, noting “some redundancy is hardly unusual in statutes addressing costs.” (internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court remanded the case for the costs to be re-taxed applying the Supreme Court’s new guidance.

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