What you need to know about copyright “small claims”
Today the U.S. Copyright Office released the Copyright Claims Board website. The site provides information about the copyright small claims process, and will eventually include an electronic case management system once the Office begins to accept claims. This blog post explains what the copyright small claims is, what UC Berkeley community members should know if they receive a copyright small claims notice, and where you can get help or additional information.
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In 2020, Congress passed a law called the “Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2020,” known as the “CASE Act.” The CASE Act mandated the formation of the Copyright Claims Board (“CCB”), a tribunal operating through the U.S. Copyright Office instead of the federal judicial branch, for the purpose of deciding “small claims” copyright infringement actions via a quicker, less expensive process—that is, without all of the procedural requirements of a normal federal court case. Damages are capped at $30,000 for CCB cases.
This page is for UC Berkeley faculty, staff, students, and scholars who might one day find themselves in receipt of a notice that a CCB action has been filed against them. The University of California also has a systemwide information page for UC-affiliated scholars, students, and employees.
Please note that the U.S. Copyright Office is still creating the rules that implement this new law, so the information on this page will evolve. And as with all information on this Office of Scholarly Communication Services website, our office cannot provide you with legal advice. However, we can help you understand how the law works. If you have further questions, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you receive a claim notice
What will a notice look like?
If you live in California, then a genuine CCB claim notice is required to be “served” to you either in-person (i.e., handed to you) or by U.S. mail. If you have received only an email, you should be wary of its contents because email is not considered valid “service of process” in California.
A genuine CCB case notice will include a docket number and other information yet to be determined. The notice will have a link to the CCB website, where you can enter the docket number on your notice, view information about the particular claim filed against you, and take various actions.
What does it mean?
A claim filed against you in the CCB means that a purported copyright owner is asserting that you have infringed their copyright through something you have uploaded, reproduced, published, created, distributed, performed, or displayed.
The notice you receive signifies that the claimant has alleged copyright infringement, but the notice does not mean you have actually infringed or that the CCB will ultimately determine you have infringed.
Indeed, there are many reasons why your use of a copyrighted work may not be an infringement. For instance, there are key exceptions to copyright law that support teaching, scholarship, and research—most notably, fair use. These exceptions provide complete defenses to claims of infringement or, in some instances, permit a significant reduction of damages. Further, not everything is actually protected by copyright. Claimants may believe they hold copyright in materials that are not subject to copyright (e.g., because the materials reflect only facts or ideas) or are no longer protected by copyright (e.g., because the copyright in the materials has expired). Claimants may also believe that they hold copyright to materials for which copyright is actually held by a third party.
If you believe one of these situations applies to you—that is, that your use of the material is protected by an exception or that the allegations in the claim are not valid—you may wish to dispute the claim or opt out of the CCB proceeding entirely. We explain your options below. Regardless, we recommend you seek legal counsel as soon as possible after receipt of a CCB case notice.
What are your options?
If you receive a properly-served notice, do not ignore it. If you ignore it and do nothing, the case will proceed in the CCB, and a default judgment can be entered against you. This means that the CCB can enter a judgment holding you responsible for all the damages claimed in the notice (up to $30,000), regardless of whether the assertions are true or whether you could have claimed any defenses.
To avoid a default judgment, you will need to respond in the time prescribed by the notice. You can choose to respond in one of two ways:
- Proceed within the CCB tribunal. If you proceed, the case will be heard by the CCB. The CCB predicts that most cases will be handled completely online, so you will not need to travel to Washington D.C. (where the U.S. Copyright Office is physically located). You will be bound by the CCB’s decision. If the claimant wins, you may have to pay up to $15,000 for each infringed work, with a maximum cap of $30,000. CCB determinations are final. There are only limited circumstances—such as fraud, corruption, and misrepresentation—when a CCB determination can be reviewed by a federal court or the Copyright Office.
- Opt out of the CCB proceeding. It’s important to understand that, if you opt out, the copyright claimant cannot restart the same claim against you in front of the CCB. So, if you opt out of the CCB, the claimant can either stop pursuing the matter entirely or decide to file suit against you in federal court (assuming they meet all of the federal court filing requirements). Federal court is more expensive and complex than the CCB’s small claims process, so many small claimants may not want to incur the expense or may feel that their allegations will not survive scrutiny in federal court. Also, UC employees likely have broader protections in federal court than in the CCB, so a timely opt-out may be a good option.
If you decide to opt out, you must mail the paper opt-out form provided with your notice, or complete an online opt-out form on the CCB website, within 60 days of service. Note that in California, additional time may be added to the deadline for your response if service of the notice to you was made by mail, pursuant to California rules for service of process.
Note that if you decide to opt out, your decision applies only in response to that particular claim you received. As an individual (as opposed to certain organizations), you cannot opt out prospectively from all future CCB claims.
Where can you get help or more information?
If you’re a UC Berkeley student, staff, or faculty member, and the claim is related to what you do at UC, contact the UC Berkeley Office of Legal Affairs or UC’s Office of General Counsel promptly.
The UC Berkeley Office of Scholarly Communication Services can also answer questions about how the law works, but cannot dispense legal advice to you. You can contact us with questions at email@example.com.
The U.S. Copyright Office provides additional information on their Copyright Claims Board Frequently Asked Questions page.