The Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U. S. C. § 505, provides in relevant part that in any copyright infringement action "the court may . . . award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs."
Petitioner John Fogerty is a successful musician, who, in the late 1960's, was the lead singer and songwriter of a popular music group known as "Creedence Clearwater Revival."
After his successful defense of the action, Fogerty moved for reasonable attorney's fees pursuant to 17 U. S. C. § 505. The District Court denied the motion, finding that Fantasy's infringement suit was not brought frivolously or in bad faith as required by Circuit precedent for an award of attorney's fees to a successful defendant.
We granted certiorari, 509 U.S. 903 (1993), to address an important area of federal law and to resolve the conflict between the Ninth Circuit's "dual" standard for awarding attorney's fees under § 505, and the so-called "evenhanded" approach exemplified by the Third Circuit.
The statutory language—"the court may also award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs"—gives no hint that successful plaintiffs are to be treated differently from successful defendants. But respondent contends that our decision in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412 (1978), in which we construed virtually identical language, supports a differentiation in treatment between plaintiffs and defendants.
Christiansburg construed the language of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which in relevant part provided that the court, "in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs . . . ." 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(k). We had earlier held, interpreting the cognate provision of Title II of that Act, 42 U. S. C. § 2000a-3(b), that a prevailing plaintiff "should ordinarily
Respondent points to our language in Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754, 758, n. 2 (1989), that "fee-shifting statutes' similar language is a `strong indication' that they are to be interpreted alike." But here we think this normal indication is overborne by the factors relied upon in our Christiansburg opinion that are absent in the case of the Copyright Act.
See also S. Rep. No. 94-473, p. 145 (1975) (same). Other courts and commentators have noted the paucity of legislative history of § 505. See, e. g., Cohen v. Virginia Electric & Power Co., 617 F.Supp. 619, 621 (ED Va. 1985), aff'd on other grounds, 788 F.2d 247 (CA4 1986). See also Jaszi, 505 And All That—The Defendant's Dilemma, 55 Law & Contemp. Prob. 107, 107-108, and nn. 1, 2 (1992).
The goals and objectives of the two Acts are likewise not completely similar. Oftentimes, in the civil rights context, impecunious "private attorney general" plaintiffs can ill afford to litigate their claims against defendants with more resources. Congress sought to redress this balance in part, and to provide incentives for the bringing of meritorious lawsuits, by treating successful plaintiffs more favorably than successful defendants in terms of the award of attorney's fees. The primary objective of the Copyright Act is to encourage the production of original literary, artistic, and musical expression for the good of the public. See infra, at 527. In the copyright context, it has been noted that "[e]ntities which sue for copyright infringement as plaintiffs can run the gamut from corporate behemoths to starving artists; the same is true of prospective copyright infringement defendants." Cohen, supra, at 622-623.
Respondent next argues that the policies and objectives of § 505 and of the Copyright Act in general are best served by the "dual approach" to the award of attorney's fees.
More importantly, the policies served by the Copyright Act are more complex, more measured, than simply maximizing the number of meritorious suits for copyright infringement. The Constitution grants to Congress the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." U. S. Const., Art. I, § 8, cl. 8. We have often recognized the monopoly privileges that Congress has authorized, while "intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors by the provision of a special reward," are limited in nature and must ultimately serve the public good. Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417, 429 (1984). For example, in Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U.S. 151, 156 (1975), we discussed the policies underlying the 1909 Copyright Act as follows:
We reiterated this theme in Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340, 349-350 (1991), where we said:
Because copyright law ultimately serves the purpose of enriching the general public through access to creative works, it is peculiarly important that the boundaries of copyright law be demarcated as clearly as possible. To that end, defendants who seek to advance a variety of meritorious copyright defenses should be encouraged to litigate them to the same extent that plaintiffs are encouraged to litigate meritorious claims of infringement. In the case before us, the successful defense of "The Old Man Down the Road" increased public exposure to a musical work that could, as a result, lead to further creative pieces. Thus a successful defense of a copyright infringement action may further the policies of the Copyright Act every bit as much as a successful prosecution of an infringement claim by the holder of a copyright.
Respondent finally urges that the legislative history supports the dual standard, relying on the principle of ratification. See Lorillard v. Pons, 434 U.S. 575, 580 (1978) ("Congress is presumed to be aware of an administrative or judicial interpretation of a statute and to adopt that interpretation when it re-enacts a statute without change . . ."). Respondent surveys the great number of lower court cases interpreting the identical provision in the 1909 Act, 17
Before turning to the import of the two studies and the cases decided under the 1909 Act, we summarize briefly the factual background of Lorillard, whence comes the statement upon which respondent relies. There the question was whether there was a right to jury trial in an action for lost wages under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). In enacting that statute, Congress provided, inter alia, that the provisions of the ADEA were to be "enforced in accordance with the `powers, remedies and procedures'" of specified sections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 81 Stat. 604, 29 U. S. C. § 626(b). Lorillard, 434 U. S., at 580. In the three decided cases which had treated the right to jury trial under the FLSA, each court had decided that there was such a right. In enacting the ADEA, "Congress exhibited both a detailed knowledge of the FLSA provisions and their judicial interpretation and a willingness to depart from those provisions regarded as undesirable or inappropriate for incorporation." Id., at 581.
Here, by contrast, the Strauss and Brown Studies deal only briefly with the provision for the award of attorney's fees. In the Strauss Study, the limited discussion begins with a quote to A. Weil, American Copyright Law 530-531
The study then notes that the pending bills contemplate no change in the attorney's fees provision and concludes with the simple statement "[t]he cases indicate that this discretion has been judiciously exercised by the courts." Ibid.
The Brown Study was intended as a supplement to the Strauss Study and, inter alia, provides information from a survey distributed to practitioners about the practical workings
Our review of the prior case law itself leads us to conclude that there was no settled "dual standard" interpretation of former § 116 about which Congress could have been aware. We note initially that at least one reported case stated no reason in awarding attorney's fees to successful defendants. See, e. g., Marks v. Leo Feist, Inc., 8 F.2d 460, 461 (CA2 1925) (noting that the Copyright Act gave courts "absolute discretion," the court awarded attorney's fees to prevailing defendant after plaintiff voluntarily dismissed suit). More importantly, while it appears that the majority of lower courts exercised their discretion in awarding attorney's fees
We thus reject each of respondent's three arguments in support of the dual standard. We now turn to petitioner's argument that § 505 was intended to adopt the "British Rule." Petitioner argues that, consistent with the neutral language of § 505, both prevailing plaintiffs and defendants should be awarded attorney's fees as a matter of course, absent exceptional circumstances. For two reasons we reject this argument for the British Rule.
First, just as the plain language of § 505 supports petitioner's claim for disapproving the dual standard, it cuts against him in arguing for the British Rule. The statute says that "the court may also award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs." The word "may" clearly connotes discretion. The automatic awarding of attorney's fees to the prevailing party would pretermit the exercise of that discretion.
Second, we are mindful that Congress legislates against the strong background of the American Rule. Unlike Britain where counsel fees are regularly awarded to the prevailing party, it is the general rule in this country that unless Congress provides otherwise, parties are to bear their own attorney's fees. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 247-262 (1975) (tracing the origins and development of the American Rule); Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U. S., at 758. While § 505 is one situation in which
Thus we reject both the "dual standard" adopted by several of the Courts of Appeals and petitioner's claim that § 505 enacted the British Rule for automatic recovery of attorney's fees by the prevailing party. Prevailing plaintiffs and prevailing defendants are to be treated alike, but attorney's fees are to be awarded to prevailing parties only as a matter of the court's discretion. "There is no precise rule or formula for making these determinations," but instead equitable discretion should be exercised "in light of the considerations we have identified." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 436-437 (1983).
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE THOMAS, concurring in the judgment.
In my view, the Court's opinion is flatly inconsistent with our statutory analysis in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412 (1978). Because I disagree with that analysis, however, and because I believe the Court adopts the correct interpretation of the statutory language at issue in this case, I concur in the judgment.
In Christiansburg, the Court interpreted the attorney's fee provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states that "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee . . . as part of the costs . . .." 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(k) (1988 ed., Supp. III). In this case, the Court construes the attorney's fee provision of the Copyright Act of 1976, which states that "the court may . . . award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs." 17 U. S. C. § 505. As the Court observes, the two provisions contain "virtually identical language." Ante, at 522. After today's decision, however, they will have vastly different meanings.
Under the Title VII provision, a prevailing plaintiff "ordinarily is to be awarded attorney's fees in all but special circumstances," Christiansburg, 434 U. S., at 417, whereas a prevailing defendant is to be awarded fees only "upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation," id., at 421. By contrast, under the Court's decision today, prevailing plaintiffs and defendants in the copyright context "are to be treated alike," and "attorney's fees are to be awarded to prevailing parties only as a matter of the court's discretion." Ante, at 534.
Interestingly, the Court does not mention, let alone discuss, Christiansburg's statutory analysis. We began that
We summarily rejected this contention, stating that "the permissive and discretionary language of the statute does not even invite, let alone require, such a mechanical construction." Ibid. We opined that the language "provide[s] no indication whatever of the circumstances under which either a plaintiff or a defendant should be entitled to attorney's fees." Ibid. (emphasis deleted). Turning to the "equitable considerations" embodied in the statute's policy objectives and legislative history, id., at 418-420, we stated that those considerations counseled against petitioner's position—a position we concluded was "untenable," id., at 419.
Today, confronting a provision "virtually identical" to that at issue in Christiansburg, the Court adopts precisely the interpretation that Christiansburg rejected as "mechanical" and "untenable." The Court states that "the plain language of § 505 supports petitioner's claim for disapproving the dual standard," ante, at 533, and that the language "gives no hint that successful plaintiffs are to be treated differently from successful defendants," ante, at 522. Thus, the Court replaces the "dual" standard adopted by the Ninth Circuit with an "evenhanded" approach, under which district courts will apply the same standard to prevailing plaintiffs and defendants when deciding whether to award fees. Ante, at 534-535, and n. 19.
It is difficult to see how the Court, when faced with "virtually identical" language in two provisions, can hold that a given interpretation is required by the "plain language" in
Such an inconsistent approach to statutory interpretation robs the law of "the clarity of its command and the certainty of its application." Doggett v. United States, 505 U.S. 647, 669 (1992) (THOMAS, J., dissenting). Indeed, we repeatedly have sought to avoid this sort of inconsistency in our fee award decisions. See, e. g., Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557, 562 (1992) ("case law construing what is a `reasonable' fee applies uniformly to all" fee-shifting statutes using the term); Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club, 463 U.S. 680, 691 (1983) ("similar attorney's fee provisions should be interpreted pari passu"); Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, n. 7 (1983) (the standards "set forth in this opinion are generally applicable in all cases in which Congress has authorized an award of fees to a `prevailing party' "). See also Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754, 758, n. 2 (1989) ("fee-shifting statutes' similar language is `a strong indication' that they are to be interpreted alike"); Northcross v. Board of Ed. of Memphis City Schools, 412 U.S. 427, 428 (1973) (per curiam) ("[S]imilarity of language . . . is, of course, a strong indication that . . . two [attorney's fee] statutes should be interpreted pari passu").
The Court recognizes the general principle that similar fee provisions are to be interpreted alike, ante, at 523, but states that the principle does not govern this case because the factors that guided our interpretation in Christiansburg—the policy objectives and legislative history of the statute—do not support the adoption of a "dual" standard in this context. See ante, at 522-525. The Court's analysis, however, rests on the mistaken premise—a premise implicit in Christiansburg
I concur in the judgment, however, because I believe the Court adopts the correct interpretation of the statutory language in this case. As the Court observes, the language of 17 U. S. C. § 505 gives no indication that prevailing plaintiffs and defendants are to be treated differently. See ante, at 522, 533. In addition, as the Court states, the use of the word "may" suggests that the determination of whether an attorney's fee award is appropriate is to be left to the discretion of the district courts. Ante, at 533. This conclusion finds further support in the full text of § 505, which provides that "the court in its discretion may allow the recovery of full costs. ... [T]he court may also award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs." (Emphasis added.)
Because considerations of stare decisis have "special force" in the area of statutory interpretation, Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164, 172 (1989), I might be hesitant to overrule Christiansburg and other cases in which we have construed similar attorney's fee provisions to impose a "dual" standard of recovery. See, e. g., Hensley, supra, at
Jack E. Brown, Chris R. Ottenweller, and Charles A. Blanchard filed a brief for Apple Computer, Inc., as amicus curiae urging affirmance.
Cases cited by the study involving prevailing plaintiffs: Advertisers Exchange, Inc. v. Hinkley, 199 F.2d 313, 316 (CA8 1952) (denying an attorney's fee where plaintiff's counsel attempted to inflate and exaggerate plaintiff's claim), cert. denied, 344 U.S. 921 (1953); Ziegelheim v. Flohr, 119 F.Supp. 324, 329 (EDNY 1954) (court denied attorney's fee "since it appears to have . . . been a fairly common practice for publishers of [prayer books] to copy rather freely from each other, and since much of plaintiff's book was in the public domain, and defendant honestly, but mistakenly, believed that plaintiff was illegally attempting to copyright and monopolize the printing of ancient prayers"); Edward B. Marks Music Corp. v. Borst Music Pub. Co., 110 F.Supp. 913 (NJ 1953) (court noted only that it would not award attorney's fee because such award is discretionary); Stein v. Rosenthal, 103 F.Supp. 227, 232 (SD Cal. 1952) (awarding attorney's fees of $3,500 as an amount "reasonably necessary to redress the infringement of plaintiffs' copyright"); Northern Music Corp. v. King Record Distributing Co., 105 F.Supp. 393, 401 (SDNY 1952) (noting that prevailing plaintiff entitled to receive a reasonable attorney's fee to be assessed by the court); White v. Kimmell, 94 F.Supp. 502, 511 (SD Cal. 1950) (copyright holder, who was a successful defendant in a declaratory judgment action, was awarded costs but denied attorney's fee award without elaboration); M. Witmark & Sons v. Pastime Amusement Co., 298 F. 470, 482-483 (EDSC 1924) (court awarded a moderate attorney's fee after noting that full allowance "would bear too heavily upon the defendant, in view of the character of the infringement and the circumstances surrounding it; but, if no fee should be allowed at all in such cases, it would probably result in many cases in a practical denial of the rights of copyright owners").
The study also cited to Jewell-LaSalle Realty Co. v. Buck, 283 U.S. 202 (1931), a case that did not involve attorney's fees, but instead addressed the damages provision of § 25 of the 1909 Act, 35 Stat. 1081.