A legal brief can be protected by copyright. Ezra Sutton represented Sakar International in a patent infringement case in Texas. Sakar and its co-defendant, Newegg, Inc. won at the trial level. They brought a motion for attorney’s fees which was denied. They separately appealed the denial to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. As time approached for filing their opening appellate briefs, Newegg agreed to provide Sutton a draft of its brief only if Sutton agreed in writing that he would only use it for reference purposes and not copy any excerpts. On the day before Newegg filed its brief, Sutton filed a brief on behalf of Sakar that was virtually identical to Newegg’s draft brief. Newegg sued Sutton for copyright infringement. Newegg brought a motion for partial summary judgment that Sutton couldn’t use fair use as a defense. The court granting summary judgment by analyzing the four fair use factors. (1) The purpose and character of the use weighed in favor of Newegg because Sutton’s brief was identical to Newegg’s brief. (2) The nature of the copyrighted work weighed in favor of Sutton because the briefs were functional presentations of law and fact. (3) The amount and substantiality of the copyrighted work used weighed in favor of Newegg because Sutton used the entire work and not just what was needed for a specific purpose. (4) The degree of harm to the potential market, weighed in favor of Sutton because Newegg couldn’t identify a market for its brief. The court tipped the balance with its own factor. Sutton could have used federal appellate rules that allow a party to either join in or adopt by reference a part of a co-party’s brief.
WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. Generally attorneys don’t sue other attorneys for adopting their brilliant arguments. I’m sure Newegg was not pleased when Sutton took advantage of the time and attorneys’ fees involved in drafting its brief on appeal. It appears that the court was reacting to two things. First, there was a written agreement between the parties and Sutton had agreed not to copy Newegg’s brief. Second, Sutton didn’t adopt Newegg’s arguments in a way that is specifically provided in the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure. Courts can get testy when litigants don’t follow rules; especially rules that save the court time in analyzing the arguments of the parties.