Four people, seen only from the shoulders down, sit around a wooden table. Two of the people have their hands on laptops; the other two people have their hands on open books. In the foreground sits a judge's gavel.
The CASE Act aims to streamline copyright disputes by setting up a small claims tribunal. Small businesses can have their cases heard without the expense of a copyright attorney. — Getty Images

Just before the end of 2020, the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act (CASE Act) was signed into law. This act pertains to copyright infringement cases concerning small businesses and allows merchants to take their claims to small claims court. Here’s what you need to know about this new law and what it means for your business.

[Read more: Guide to Intellectual Property Rights]

What does the CASE Act do?

The goal of the CASE Act is to streamline copyright disputes through a small claims tribunal set up within the U.S. Copyright Office. This entity will hear cases before a three-judge panel of experts, with damages capped at $15,000 per claim and $30,000 in total.

The vast majority of copyright infringements in the United States are less than $1 million, with nearly 56% amounting to $120,000 or less. This new small claims tribunal opens an avenue for businesses to protect their intellectual property without having to shell out for expensive copyright attorneys.

The bill requires the U.S. Copyright Office to set up a Copyright Claims Board within the next year. While the pandemic may cause delays this year, the Act also allows for an extension of no more than 180 days for this Board to be established. In practice, small businesses can expect to have a new way to bring copyright claims to the small claims court most likely by the end of 2021.

What is covered under copyright law?

The U.S. Copyright Office defines copyright as a form of protection for “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” for both published and unpublished works. A copyright can cover a wide range of works, from poetry to novels to songs to even architectural designs. It’s important to note that copyright does not protect ideas, facts, systems or methods of operation.

Many merchants don’t realize that they don’t need to apply for copyright protection. If you have a logo or website, those things are automatically your material, whether or not you officially register them with the U.S. Copyright Office. In instances where there may be copyright infringement, however, you will need to show tangible proof that you created the material.

[Read more: Intellectual Property: Differences Between Patent, Copyright and Trademark Laws]

People will still be able to pursue infringement cases in federal court but this is for individuals who cannot afford that expense

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel, National Press Photographers Association

Small claims court for copyright infringement

The CASE Act is significant because it opens a new avenue for small businesses that typically have less funding available to pursue legal action against copyright infringement. Copyright attorneys usually only take cases of a certain value; damages of less than $30,000, for instance, may not come with enough payout to interest a lawyer. In addition, many lawyers charge steep fees to take on copyright infringement work.

“People will still be able to pursue infringement cases in federal court but this is for individuals who cannot afford that expense,” said National Press Photographers Association General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher. Taking a case to the small claims tribunal allows merchants to represent themselves and save money in the process.

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