U.S. Courts of Appeal are split as to whether copyright registration occurs once the copyright holder delivers the required application, deposit and fee to the Copyright Office, or whether registration occurs after the Copyright Office acts on an application by either registering or denying a copyright. As such, the Supreme Court will consider this issue in its current term through Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, an eleventh Circuit case decided in May, 2017.
In Fourth Estate, the Eleventh Circuit Court affirmed the district court’s ruling which dismissed the lawsuit on grounds that the Copyright Act requires the Register of Copyrights to actually register (or deny) the copyright claim before the infringement suit could proceed. This "registration approach," which is also adopted by the Tenth Circuit, follows the plain language reading of the Copyright Act, which requires a valid copyright registration to be issued before the filing of an infringement suit. On the other hand, the Fifth and Ninth Circuit Courts have adopted the "application approach," which allows for an infringement suit to be maintained after an application is completed and filed. These courts reason that the application process is a mere formality, since every application results in a registration or rejection, and either will allow a plaintiff to proceed with an infringement action. Obtaining a copyright registration can take months unless the applicant pays a nonrefundable $800 fee for expedited handling when there is compelling need, such as prospective litigation. Forgoing the extra fees will make infringement actions more economically feasible, particularly for smaller companies or individual owners.
Once this split is resolved, copyright owners will know what is required prior to bringing an infringement suit. The decision will also end forum shopping and provide clarity and consistency in copyright litigation moving forward.
This post will be updated when the Supreme Court renders its decision.