Using the Copyright Small Claims Board to Fight Essay Mills

In December 2020, the United States government passed the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act (CASE Act). The act, to put it simply, created the Copyright Small Claims Board (CCB), a “small claims court” to hear copyright infringement disputes.

In the one and a half years since, the U.S. Copyright Office has been working to launch the board. That launch happened just last week. However, as one might expect, there has been some pent-up demand for the service that the CCB provides. 

According to the CCB website, there are already 22 cases pending before the CCB as of this writing. However, as a recent article on Torrentfreak pointed out, more than a third of the cases they were able to examine came from just two defendants and most appeared to be photographers targeting commercial use of their images.

However, there is one case before the CCB that stands out to me, Benjamin Bronner v. EssayZoo.

According to the claim, Bronner is a university professor who penned a series of instructions and paper prompts for his students to help them write a required essay. Those prompts ended on up on EssayZoo, which provided visitors with both a preview of the prompts and the option to buy the full document for $4.32.

Bronner approached EssayZoo, reaching out via their chat, to ask about the process of getting the paper removed. However, the EssayZoo representative said, “There is no process since we don’t upload other people’s content.”

Bronner indicated that there should be such a process and provided a link to the allegedly infringing content. According to Bronner, the content was removed on March 21, 2022, after nearly a year online. 

However, Bronner is clearly not fully satisfied and, using the CCB, is requesting $7,500 in damages. To that end, he cites both a need to deter future infringements and to protect the integrity of his courses.

But this raises a question, is this a new way to address essay mills or essay resale websites? Bronner is far from alone in seeing his material appear on such sites, so could this be a new strategy moving forward?

The answer is complicated and to see why, we first have to understand the CCB itself.

Understanding the CCB

The CASE ACT, and thus the CCB, were created to address a significant and ongoing issue with copyright enforcement in the United States.

Basically, in the U.S., copyright cases are the exclusive domain of the federal government. This means that all copyright infringement cases must be heard by federal courts. The problem is that such cases are expensive to undertake and, often times, the damages one can reasonably recoup make the process not worthwhile.

This means that many “smaller” copyright infringement cases do not have any practical enforcement outside of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedowns and cease-and-desist letters.

The CCB aims to address that by providing an affordable way to bring copyright cases. 

The main benefits of the CCB is that parties do not require legal training, though a lawyer can provide representation, and the initial filing fee is just $40, with an additional $60 owed if the case enters the “active phase”. 

For potential defendants, there are benefits as well. Damages in the CCB are limited to $15,000 per work, one tenth of the maximum for statutory damages, and $30,000 per case. While that is still a significant amount of money, it is far less than the damages seen in many copyright cases.

In one famous example, The Beastie Boys won a $1.7 million judgment against Monster Energy but racked up some $2.4 million in legal fees, only some of which were granted. With those types of numbers, it’s easy to see why both plaintiffs and defendants might be tempted by this system.

The reason for the these changes is that the CCB is not a court. It is a tribunal overseen by three officers appointed by the Librarian of Congress on the recommendation of the Register of Copyrights.

With all of this said, it seems like the CCB is a natural way to address this issue. The main reason that rightsholders, including professors, don’t bring legal cases against essay mills is because of the high costs. Even with the reduced damages, CCB proceedings offer an opportunity to affordably address these kinds of infringements.

However, before running to file a claim with the CCB, there are a few additional limitations of the system that all users, including professors, need to understand.

The Biggest Limitation of the CCB

By far the biggest limitation of the CCB is that the process is opt-in. This means that the potential defendant has to opt in to the proceedings and, if they either opt out or simply don’t respond, the case is over before it begins.

Granted, in that scenario, the cost to the plaintiff is just $40. However, that also means the time, energy and effort that they put into the case likely goes to waste.

The simple fact is that there is little reason for an essay mill, or most other defendants, to opt in to this procedure. Though the reduced damages are potentially valuable, it’s unlikely that the plaintiff involved has the ability to file a full copyright infringement lawsuit, which would be the next step.

This is especially true for essay mills, most of which are based outside the United States. The cost of chasing such a plaintiff in a regular court generally far outstrips any damages that could be reasonably collected.

In short, essay mills can just decline to participate and, most likely, feel comfortable that they are safe from any further legal action.

That said, this case is still well worth watching, especially if EssayZoo does choose to participate. The damages that Bronner is seeking means that the case would be heard before the whole tribunal, and it would give a clear indication to how the CCB will approach similar cases.

However, it’s unlikely that this case will make it that far, especially with the opt-in requirement.

Bottom Line

I will be watching this case closely. It sits perfectly at the intersection of copyright as a legal field and plagiarism as an ethical issue. In many ways, this is the ideal case for this site.

That said, others in academia should be watching it too. Though it’s unlikely that this case will make it before the tribunal, it is just the first attempt, and it stands to reason that others will follow it.

That said, Bronner’s situation is not uncommon. Though it is strange that, in this case, his work was presented as an essay for sale, instructors often find their work on homework help sites and essay mill sites for a variety of reasons.

As such, the CCB may be situationally useful, and it is something that academics should be aware of. 

Even if it isn’t a panacea for academia when battling these sites, any new tool is worth being aware of.