The Copyright Act provides that “Registration” of a copyright is a precondition to filing suit for copyright infringement. 17 U.S.C. § 411(a). We are still trying to figure out exactly when registration occurs.
While copyright registration is voluntary, the Copyright Act provides several incentives for a copyright owner to register a copyright, one of which is the right to enforce a copyright in an infringement action: 17 USC 411(a) provides:
[N]o civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until … registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title. In any case, however, where the deposit, application, and fee required for registration have been delivered to the Copyright Office in proper form and registration has been refused, the applicant is entitled to institute a civil action for infringement .…”
There are two camps of thought splitting the Federal circuit courts on when “registration” takes place with regard to Section 411(a). The first is that “registration” occurs when a copyright owner files all necessary application materials to the Copyright Office to register a copyright. The 5th and 9th Circuits and various district courts in other circuits have adopted this perspective, relying on the fact that the Copyright Act prescribes that the effective date of a registration is the date on which a proper and complete application was filed. Because an applicant may sue for infringement whether or not a registration is issued as long as a proper application was filed, courts following the application approach believe the “registration” approach is misguided. Since an applicant can file suit either way, it is immaterial whether registration is ultimately granted.
The second camp is that “registration” occurs when the Register of Copyrights registers the copyright or rejects the application. The 10th Circuit follows the “registration“ approach. Just this month, the 11th Circuit made clear that it too will follow the registration approach.
In its decision in Fourth Estate v. Wall Street.com, LLC, the 11th Circuit explained the rationale behind its support of the “registration” approach. That case involved a copyright infringement lawsuit over articles appearing on WallStreet.com. The Copyright Office had not yet processed the copyright applications and Wall-Street.com, LLC moved to dismiss. The court stated that “the Copyright Act defines registration in Section 410(a) as a process that requires action by both the copyright owner and the Copyright Office; the filing of the application, the payment of the application fee, the examination of the application by the Register of Copyrights, and then either the issuance of the certificate of the notification of the refusal of registration.
Section 410(a) of the Copyright Act provides in pertinent part:
When, after examination, the Register of Copyrights determines that, in accordance with the provisions of this title, the material deposited constitutes copyrightable subject matter and that the other legal and formal requirements of this title have been met, the Register shall register the claim and issue to the applicant a certificate of registration under the seal of the Copyright Office.
The court argued that the use of the phrase “after examination” in section 410(a) makes explicit that an application alone is insufficient for registration. Further, the court points out that Section 411(a) allows an applicant whose application has been refused to file an infringement suit. If registration occurred as soon as an application was filed, how could the application ever be refused the court reasoned.
With two Federal circuits clearly split, it is time for the Supreme Court to resolve this issue.