Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc.

RESPONDENT: Columbia Pictures Television, Inc.
LOCATION: National Endowment for the Arts

DOCKET NO.: 96-1768
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 523 US 340 (1998)
ARGUED: Jan 21, 1998
DECIDED: Mar 31, 1998

John G. Roberts, Jr. - for petitioner
Henry J. Tashman - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc. was the case reviewed by the Supreme Court of the USA that determined the right of opposite party to a jury trial if there was the reward of statutory damages because of the copyright infringement.

In 1991, Columbia Pictures Television, Inc., ceased few licensing agreements on some television series like "Who's the Boss," "Silver Spoons," "Hart to Hart," and "T. J. Hooker," and three broadcasting stations. Therefore, the last ones were passed in the ownership of C. Elvin Feltner when their royalty payments had been overdue.

However, the stations transmitted the shows on the television violating copyrights. Therefore, the representative of Columbia brought the claim against Feltner before the court.

The judges confirmed the defendant’s obligation to hold the liability on the appellant`s copyright infringement in their decision. Thus, Columbia claimed to retrieve the legal compensation in accordance section 504(c) of the Copyright Act.

The District Court refused in Feltner's sue for a jury trial and ordered to pay statutory damages to Columbia according to judiciary trial. The Court of Appeals confirmed and underlined that the legislative acts both don`t establish a right to a jury trial in the cases regarding statutory damages.

The appellant brought the suit on the issue that section 504(c) of the Copyright Act's silence or the Seventh Amendment imposed the right on a jury trial in cases when the owner of copyright requests the legal compensation on the caused damages.

The Court ordered that only the Seventh Amendment established the right to a jury trial, including consideration of their opinion on the amount of compensation.

The judges analyzed the mentioned constitutional ruling and found that it determined the rule that juries uphold the amount of rewarded damages to the intellectual property owner in civil and copyright cases both.

Hence, the Supreme Court of the USA reversed the decision in Feltner v. Columbia Pictures and returned it to be reviewed by the district court.


Does section 504(c) of the Copyright Act or the Seventh Amendment grant a right to a jury trial when a copyright owner elects to recover statutory damages?

Media for Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 21, 1998 in Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc.

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 96-1768, C. Elvin Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television.

Mr. Roberts.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court--

In this case, a district judge determined that Mr. Feltner should pay Columbia Pictures 8.8 million in statutory damages for a copyright infringement.

Before arriving at that figure, the judge held a bench trial, after which he made the factual finding that Mr. Feltner's conduct was willful, which increased the amount of damages which could be awarded under the statute.

In light of clear historical practice on both sides of the Atlantic prior to 1971, Feltner had a right under the Seventh Amendment to have a jury make that finding and others on which the award was based and determine the amount of damages to be imposed within the statutory limits.

Before reaching that constitutional question, however, we need to consider whether the statute may be construed to afford a jury trial right.

It may be.

First, the first Federal statute providing statutory damages in an amount

"as to the court shall appear to be just. "

the 1856 act, also provided that those damages should be recovered in an action on the case, a prototypical legal action for which a jury would be available.

Statutory damages as to the court shall appear to be just, the samel terminology as employed in the 1856 act, were carried forward in successive acts up to the 1909 act, when the statutory damages provision took its modern form, with no indication that Congress wanted to delete the jury trial right that was so clearly present in 1856.

William H. Rehnquist:

The concept of statutory damages has changed some, has it not, from 1856 to 1909?

John G. Roberts, Jr.:


William H. Rehnquist:

The guidelines, or whatever you want to call it.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:


It has been... it was expanded significantly in 1909.

The range was expanded and the 1856 act applied to dramatic compositions.

The 1909 act applied more generally.

But that same language, as to the court shall appear to be just, carried through all the different statutory provisions.

David H. Souter:

I take it in the '56 act there was no opportunity to elect a different damage scheme after verdict but before a judgment as there is in the current act.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

That's right.

That's one of the distinctions added in 1909 from the 1856 act.

David H. Souter:

So if we followed your reasoning in this case, as I think your opponents have pointed out, we would have to accept as a consequence that a jury could render its verdict on actual damages, be discharged, go home, and at that point the election could be made to go for statutory damages, and I don't know what happens then.

I guess the jury would have to be called back on your theory.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

That's a false problem.

It's never been a problem in the courts that have recognized the jury trial right so far.

All the judge needs to do--

David H. Souter:

But it could happen, couldn't it?

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

--I don't think so.