Zazzle, Inc. is an on-line marketplace for imprinted merchandise. Zazzle will then imprint the image on things like coffee mugs, t-shirts and, these days, face masks. Zazzle uses stock images but it also allows someone to upload their artwork or a graphic.

Greg Young Publishing Inc. (“GYPI”) is the licensing agent for various artists. GYPI sued Zazzle for using images belonging to its clients. Zazzle’s defense was that it relies on the user certification process so it shouldn’t be held liable. GYPI gave Zazzle a catalog of GYPI’s images and Zazzle kept on using the images anyway. Obviously, the user certification process didn’t work. A jury found that Zazzle’s infringement was willful and returned a verdict in favor GYPI in the amount of $460,800. The trial court reversed the jury’s holding that GYPI didn’t present sufficient evidence that Zazzle acted willfully. The damages were reduced to $351,000. The trial court also denied GYPI’s request for attorneys’ fees despite the fact that GYPI was the prevailing party. The trial court believed that Zazzle’s defense was objectively reasonable.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court on the issue of willfulness. The Ninth Circuit held that a reasonable jury could have found that Zazzle acted recklessly by knowingly relying on obviously insufficient oversight mechanisms. The Ninth Circuit did not reverse the trial court’s denial of attorneys’ fees but reserved the issue to be revisited considering the finding of willfulness.

WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. The U.S. follows the “American Rule” when it comes to fee shifting in a law suit. The aptly named American Rule means that parties to a lawsuit pay their own attorneys’ fees unless a statute or contract provides otherwise. The Copyright Act allows the recovery of attorneys’ fees by the prevailing party. Fee shifting in a copyright infringement case can vastly change the economic dynamic of bringing or defending a suit. Exposure to attorneys’ fees can have a chilling effect on vigorous advocacy.  So, the courts have developed a standard for fee shifting. A claim or defense has to be “objectively reasonable”. In other words, do you have a good faith basis to argue your position? If you don’t and the other side is the prevailing party, you pay their attorneys’ fees. This leaves room for parties to come up with novel and innovative arguments without fearing an attorneys’ fees burden. In Zazzle’s case, just relying on someone else saying, “Yes, own this”, wasn’t objectively reasonable.