What artists need to know about the new small claims copyright court

Instead of bitching about it on Facebook, artists can now file a lawsuit against copyright infringers in a process that’s as easy as filling out an online form.

More than a year after Congress approved its creation, the Copyright Claims Board — a new body which is intended to act as a kind of “small claims court” for copyright infringement — has finally gone live and is now accepting claims.

This is one of the great unexplored stories in music media right now, because this Copyright Claims Board, or CCB, will change how artists, copyright holders and accused infringers interact in the future. While law firms have been boning up on the process and the board’s odd procedures and protocols, most artists are unaware it even exists.

Established by the Small Claims Enforcement Act (yet another fascinating arts-related program tucked into the coronavirus relief bill in December 2020), the Copyright Claims Board is a new forum which is intended to be streamlined, less expensive and more accessible for copyright holders. The establishment of the board followed a 2006 Congressional study that indicated a need for a “small claims court” for copyright.

With awards capped at $30,000, the CCB was designed by Congress to handle the kind of relatively minor or mundane matters of copyright law — photographs on mugs or Red Bubble posters — that proliferate in the internet age. The board also has more liberal standards for whether the infringed artwork has been registered with the Copyright Office (Federal courts require this; the CCB requires only that the application be submitted prior to filing.)

Attorney’s fees are in most circumstances not recoupable as a result of a judgment by the CCB. The streamlined process excludes depositions and most expert testimony. There are provisions however which are intended to thwart and punish copyright trolls filing frivolous suits via the CCB, and in addition to copyright cases, the board will also hear cases brought by people who claim they were unjustly harmed by false copyright claims.

But the most peculiar aspect of the CCB is that the process is entirely voluntary — by the plaintiff but also by the defendant. Within 60 days of being served with a case filed with the CCB by a rights-holder, the defendant can opt-out of the proceedings entirely. If this happens, the case before the CCB is dismissed without prejudice. The plaintiff could then proceed to file a claim in federal court, as they could have done before the CCB case was filed.

The legal community itself seems undecided on whether the board will be a godsend, a nuisance or a catastrophe. There have been fears that the CCB will give rise to a subset of lawyers filing as many cases as they can, or soliciting them from large IP holders and going out to “uncover” actionable infringement to file cases over. Moreover there seems to be some dispute whether or not the new board is even constitutional, as it may violate the separation of powers by having appointees from the other branches of government usurping the judicial branch’s authority.

Whether this is it or not, something like the CCB would obviously be of interest to independent artists, producers and labels who don’t have the resources to keep a team of trial lawyers on tap. You can find out more about using the new board (or having it used on you) at ccb.gov.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash