A minister’s widow may be entitled to attorneys’ fees in a case involving the copyrights to her late husband’s video-recorded sermons, the Ninth Circuit said Wednesday.
In an issue of first impression in the circuit, the court said a party can still recover attorneys’ fees under the Copyright Act in a copyright-related case involving declaratory relief instead of a typical copyright claim.
The case involves the recordings of Eugene Scott, who launched the first 24-hour religious television network. Eugene bequeathed his copyrights to his widow, Melissa Scott, who continued his license agreement with Dolores Press Inc. When Melissa refused Georgia minister Patrick Robinson’s request to share the sermon recordings with his students, he launched a website sharing the sermons to “stick it to the devil” and “get the ball rolling in this legal battle.”
“Robinson succeeded in the latter,” the court said.
Dolores and Melissa sued Robinson’s company, Doc’s Dream LLC, for copyright infringement, and Doc’s Dream sued for a declaration that Eugene abandoned his copyrights before he died. The Central District of California dismissed Dolores’s complaints and ruled in Dolores’s favor in the copyright abandonment case. The Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissals and affirmed the abandonment ruling.
Dolores requested attorneys’ fees in the abandonment case under the Copyright Act. The district court said courts generally award fees in such cases if they require “construction” of the Copyright Act, and that fees weren’t available because the case concerned Eugene’s “intent to abandon ownership,” which it said didn’t require it to construe the act.
The Ninth Circuit said it read the act “to allow the discretionary award of attorney’s fees in any action where the scope of the copyright is at issue.” In this case, the appeals court said attorneys’ fees could be granted because Doc’s Dream sought a declaration that Eugene’s works “fall outside the scope of copyright protection.”
The district court had also denied attorneys’ fees because the concept of copyright abandonment predated the Copyright Act. “But the judicial origin of the copyright abandonment doctrine does not mean that an action alleging abandonment does not invoke the Copyright Act,” the Ninth Circuit said, and the action involved questions of copyright attribution, transfer, and the effect of copyright notices that are governed by the act.
“It is difficult—if not impossible—to properly evaluate an intellectual property creator’s alleged abandonment without invoking the Copyright Act,” the court said.
The Ninth Circuit remanded for the district court to determine whether fees were justified.
Judge Consuelo M. Callahan wrote the opinion, joined by Judges John B. Owens and Edward R. Korman.
Digital Business Law Group PA and the Law Offices of Linda S. McAleer represented Doc’s Dream. The Leichter Firm, Manatt Phelps & Phillips, and Rimon PC represented Dolores.
The case is Doc’s Dream LLC v. Dolores Press Inc., 9th Cir., No. 18-56073, 5/13/20.