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SCOTUS: “Full Costs” Are Just Costs

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By Mark Webb and David G. Barker

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Rimini Street v. Oracle USA that  “full costs” described in 17 U.S.C. § 505 of the (Copyright Act) are limited to the six categories of taxable costs set forth in 28 U.S.C.  §§ 1821, 1920. The decision reversed the district court’s award of, and the Ninth Circuit’s order affirming, $12,774,550.26 in additional costs to Oracle for litigation costs outside of those delineated in §§ 1821 and 1920, such as expert witnesses, e-discovery, and jury consulting.

The Court determined, absent an explicit statutory instruction, a statute awarding costs will not be construed as “authorizing an award of litigation expenses beyond the six categories listed in §§ 1821 and 1920. . .”. The Court held the word “full” is not an explicit statutory instruction that alters the meaning of the word costs, just as “[a] ‘full moon’ means the moon, not Mars.” Therefore, “full costs” under 17 U.S.C. § 505 refers only to costs — not other litigation expenses.

The decision resolves a circuit split (see here); the Supreme Court siding with the Eighth and Eleventh Circuits and reversing the Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits. The ruling gives clarity to copyright litigants regarding how much additional money is at stake in a case and may impact numerous litigation decisions, including settlement and trial-related decisions.