Copyright Damages: A Capricious System That Stifles Innovation


The last time Congress enacted significant new copyright legislation, only about one quarter of U.S. households had Internet access. It’s not surprising, then, that the current copyright regime isn’t exactly suited to our digital age. Copyright law is meant to provide incentives for creators and innovators. This principle is in the Constitution, which gives Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” In other words, we give creators limited monopolies over their works—patents and copyrights—in order to encourage them to create.  

Lately, however, this concept has started to backfire. Laws meant to foster innovation have in fact discouraged technological innovation by imposing the threat of ruinous financial penalties on entrepreneurs for engaging in perfectly legal activities that lawmakers couldn’t have envisioned when drafting the Copyright Act.

Copyright law can be confusing, particularly because many of the ways we create and share content today didn’t exist in the 1960s and ’70s, when Congress wrote most of the current Copyright Act. But, one aspect of the law is clear: a court may levy damages of up to $150,000 for each instance of infringement. This means that you could be on the hook for $150,000 for illegally downloading a single song, or for reusing or repurposing content in a manner that you believed was totally legal—until you found out it wasn’t.

The uncertainty resulting from this huge potential liability touches innovators of all kinds, not just traditional content creators. If you’re a startup and host any third-party content, you could find yourself unwittingly facing the threat of outrageous damages. Even if what you’re doing is legal, just starting your business may not be worth the risk.

Recognizing the need to reform copyright law to better protect the new types of creativity that technological changes have allowed, Congress held several hearings in recent weeks evaluating different aspects of the copyright regime, from term lengths to music licensing to the first sale doctrine. Most recently, and perhaps most importantly, the Judiciary Committee held a hearing to discuss possible changes to the nature and scope of the remedies available in copyright infringement actions.

Under virtually all U.S. laws, plaintiffs can only collect money from defendants to the extent that they were actually injured by the illegal activities. Copyright law, however, is different: plaintiffs don’t have to show any economic injury from infringement whatsoever in order to collect money from defendants. Instead, a copyright plaintiff can ask the court to award a fixed amount of money—between $200 to $150,000 per work infringed—whether or not the plaintiff was actually harmed. Juries have significant discretion to award damages within this range, and, as juries are wont to do, they often issue awards that are wildly unpredictable and many times larger than the plaintiff’s actual injury.

While it’s certainly important to deter blatantly infringing conduct, the chilling effects of these large statutory damages have unintended consequences. Copyright law doesn’t have a lot of bright lines separating conduct that is infringing from conduct that isn’t; this flexibility is necessary to ensure that new, beneficial modes of creative expression aren’t outlawed under statutes that couldn’t predict future innovations. This, of course, means that it’s often difficult for innovators to know with certainty whether their conduct is infringing or not, and the threat of hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages for failing to accurately predict what a judge or jury will say will necessarily deter a lot of non-infringing conduct.

For example, the rules surrounding liability for companies that provide content distribution services (e.g. BitTorrent, YouTube, etc.) are decidedly unclear. The law does provide “safe harbors” for content intermediaries, but those harbors are hardly safe if, like YouTube, you have to spend seven years and untold millions in court to determine whether you’ve qualified. The risk of a high statutory damages award, even if it is unlikely that any infringement has occurred, can be enough to discourage entrepreneurs and investors from entering the market.

The disincentivizing effect of massive statutory damages awards isn’t limited to startups hosting third-party content. The rules regulating software copyrights are incredibly confusing, even for copyright experts. Considering so much software development revolves around building off preexisting code, uncertain copyright liability is a risk for virtually any entrepreneur who wants to innovate by transforming existing code. In the wake of the Oracle v. Google ruling, using simple APIs to ensure interoperability raises the risk of huge statutory damages liability, even if the use of such APIs causes no damage at all.

The existing statutory damages framework seems to have lost sight of the ultimate purpose of all copyright laws: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”—essentially, to promote innovation. When considering changes to the Copyright Act, Congress must reconsider the statutory damages framework to make sure that discouraging infringement doesn’t also discourage innovation by subjecting entrepreneurs to undue risk from the threat of irrational statutory damages awards.