Copyright Infringement Litigation Fell 22 Percent in FY 2016
New federal lawsuits over issues of copyright infringement fell 22 percent last year. Case-by-case court records compiled and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found a total of 3,944 new federal copyright infringement cases were filed in the U.S. District Courts during fiscal year 2016 which ended September 30. This is down from the peak level of 5,042 such suits filed during fiscal year 2015. See Table 1
This reduction after 2015 represents a sharp reversal of previous trends which had seen the number of copyright infringement cases under 17 USC 501 climbing steadily year after year. So far during the first month of the new 2017 fiscal year, this lower level of filings has continued. Across the country, October 2016 saw only 349 civil lawsuits over copyright infringement filed in the federal courts compared to a monthly average during FY 2015 of 420 such cases. However, despite these recent declines, the volume of new copyright infringement cases is currently still much higher than it was back in 2010 when filings began to climb. These longer term trends are shown in Figure 1.
This rise had been fueled by the growth of the internet as well as advances in technology. This made it easier both to legally distribute digital content as well as to pirate copyrighted material. Large numbers of copyright infringement lawsuits were filed, for example, against music fans who used peer-to-peer technology to share music. So-called "copyright trolls"—parties that acquire copyrights to make money through the aggressive filing of cases alleging copyright infringement, often with little intent to actually produce or license the works—were a further source of litigation.
Top Ranked Judicial Districts
It is as yet unclear what brought about this recent drop. The fact that a few districts located on the east and west coasts have seen their copyright infringement cases continue to rise is muddying the picture. For example, the Central District of California (Los Angeles) which had the largest number of suits in the country during each of the past two years saw its copyright infringement cases grow from 632 lawsuits filed in FY 2015 to 716 new suits in FY 2016. This growth pattern was also seen in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) which had the second highest volume of copyright infringement cases. The volume of new cases there grew from 460 cases filed in FY 2015 to 551 during FY 2016.
While these two districts were standouts in both the volume and growth in their litigation in this area, all of the other nine districts that had at least 200 copyright infringement cases during FY 2015 saw their litigation numbers fall during FY 2016. For example, litigation in New Jersey which had the third highest volume of cases during FY 2015 saw its numbers drop precipitously from 423 new filings during FY 2015 to only 181 in FY 2016. Similarly fourth ranked Northern District of Illinois (Chicago) and fifth ranked Maryland also saw their copyright infringement litigation volumes tumble during FY 2016.
Some districts that had not seen such high levels of this type of litigation during FY 2015, however, saw their caseloads grow. Copyright infringement cases jumped from 33 to 133 between FY 2015 and FY 2016 in the Southern District of California (San Diego), and increased from 6 to 124 cases in the Eastern District of California (Sacramento). Numbers grew more modestly from 162 to 188 cases in the Northern District of California (San Francisco).
Relative to their population size, two other districts had an unusually high number of copyright infringement cases last year. These were Oregon with 2.6 times the national level and the Northern District of New York (Syracuse) with 1.6 times the national average.
Table 2 provides comparative numbers for copyright infringement cases for the last two years in each federal judicial district. The volume of these cases relative to the population in each district is also given.