Tuesday, March 12, 2019
U.S. Supreme Court holds that a copyright claimant may not file infringement suit until the Copyright Office registers a copyright
Although an author automatically gains copyright protection for her work immediately upon the work’s creation, an author may not file an infringement action in court until “registration of the copyright has been made” in accordance with the Copyright Act. The Supreme Court was recently called upon to resolve a split amongst the circuit courts regarding when registration of a copyright is deemed made.
Some circuits held that a registration of a copyright is made as soon as the claimant delivers the required application, copies of the work, and fee to the Copyright Office; other circuits held that registration is made only after the Copyright Office reviews and registers the copyright. The Supreme Court in Fourth Estate v. Wall-Street.com,LLC resolved the split by holding that registration occurs, and a copyright claimant may commence an infringement suit, when the Copyright Office registers a copyright. The Court further held that, upon registration of the copyright, however, a copyright owner can recover for infringement that occurred both before and after registration.
Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation is an online news producer that licensed articles to Wall-Street.com, LLC, a news website. The license agreement required Wall-Street to remove from its website all content produced by Fourth Estate before canceling the agreement. Wall-Street canceled, but continued to display articles produced by Fourth Estate. Fourth Estate sued Wall-Street and its owner for copyright infringement. Because the Copyright Office had not yet acted on Fourth Estate’s registration applications, the District Court, on Wall-Street’s motion, dismissed the complaint. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal.
The Supreme Court’s ruling of course has no effect on the statutory scheme that allows for preregistration infringement suits to be filed in limited circumstances. Claimants are still allowed to bring suits under those statutes, provided that they eventually make registration as required to maintain their suits.
The Court’s ruling in Fourth Street means that many copyright suits currently in progress are not ripe for adjudication and can likely be dismissed on motion. It is also important to note that, while the Court’s ruling allows claimants to sue for infringement occurring prior to registration, nothing provides for the tolling of the statute of limitations while the Copyright Office processes registration. With a three-year statute of limitations for copyright infringement, and an average application processing time of seven months, parties should not delay in getting their applications on file.