In the internet environment, copyright enforcement often begins with filing a John Doe suit against unknown infringers identified by IP addresses, figuring out which ISP owns those addresses, and then obtaining information from the ISP about the identity of a particular subscriber. In Killer Joe Nevada v. Leaverton, the Eight Circuit held that a district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to award attorneys’ fees when a copyright plaintiff voluntarily dismissed a case against a particular individual that was identified by IP address.
In Leaverton, Killer Joe filed a Jon Doe suit based on IP addresses, subpoenaed Leaverton’s identity from the ISP, and named her as a defendant. Leaverton answered and moved for a declaratory judgment that she had not infringed. Killer Joe then moved to dismiss its claims with prejudice and dismiss the counterclaim as moot. Leaverton was fine with the dismissal provided it included attorneys’ fees, which the copyright act says can be awarded to the prevailing party. The district court denied attorneys’ fees; Leaverton appealed, and the panel examined whether the trial judge had abused his discretion.
The most significant ruling in this case was the rejection of Leaverton’s argument that it was unreasonable for the copyright owner to sue based on infringing activity occurring at a particular IP address. The 8th Circuit noted that there is no authority suggesting that it is frivolous for a copyright owner to bring suits based on alleged infringing activity at particular IP addresses. Furthermore, the appellate court noted, once the copyright owner figured out that Leaverton was not the infringer, the copyright owner immediately dismissed the case. In those circumstances, the court held, the trial judge did not abuse its discretion in denying the plaintiff’s motion for fees.
Now, this case is not a guarantee: holding that the court did not abuse its discretion by denying attorney’s fees to the defendant is not the same thing as holding that an unsuccessful plaintiff can categorically avoid fee-shifting by dismissing its own complaint. But the message between the lines seems pretty clear: if an IP-based case against an infringer goes south, best to cut your losses early.
This time at least, a good deed went unpunished.