On Friday, March 7th, Judge Stanton of S.D.N.Y. told Viacom that it would not be able to assert a claim for punitive damages against YouTube. In a seven page Opinion and Order, Judge Stanton made it clear that “the Copyright Act makes no provision for punitive damages,” and that the Supreme Court had long held that copyright protection is “wholly statutory.” He also cited Second Circuit cases and Nimmer on Copyright. Viacom’s argument was based on a S.D.N.Y. case from 2004, Blanch v. Koons, in which the plaintiff Blanch had not sustained actual damages and was unable to recover statutory damages. In that case Judge Stanton gave Blanch the opportunity to amend the complaint in order to give the plaintiff “a chance to prove malice and raise squarely the question whether punitive damages are available to her.” But this time the judge wasn’t willing to go so far:
If it ever was, that decision is no longer good law. Recent decisions have rejected its holding.
Judge Stanton also pointed out that the plaintiffs here “have the full array of remedies (including statutory willfulness damages) available to them,” thereby negating the very rationale for the Blanch decision. Finally, he sealed the lid on Viacom’s Blanch Gambit:
It is time to extinguish the ignis fatuus held out by Blanch. Common-law punitive damages cannot be recovered under the Copyright Act.
For those of us who aren’t native Latin speakers, “ignis fatuus” means “will-o’-the-wisp” or “something that misleads or deludes,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Ed.Justia has all of the case documents for Viacom v. YouTube as PDFs. This Opinion and Order is document #95.