This week, the Supreme Court resolved a split in the circuits regarding an issue in copyright law that affects copyright owners in California. Until now, the law in the Ninth Circuit was that a copyright owner could file suit for infringement as soon as they filed a copyright application in the Copyright Office. However, in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC (U.S. Supreme Court, March 4, 2019), the Court rejected this approach, holding that a copyright owner cannot file suit for infringement until the work has been registered by the Copyright Office.
The plaintiff, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp., is a news group who writes online articles. The defendant, Wall-Street.com, is a website for news articles. Pursuant to a license, Fourth Estate licensed its articles to Wall-Street.com. Wall-Street.com cancelled the license, but continued to publish Fourth Estate’s articles, in violation of the license. Fourth Estate filed applications in the Copyright Office to register the copyrights in its articles, and then filed suit against Wall-Street.com for copyright infringement. Wall-Street.com moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that Fourth Estate had not registered its copyrights within the meaning of the Copyright Act of 1976, as amended, as of the filing of the complaint. The district court granted Wall-Street.com’s motion to dismiss. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Copyright protection exists as soon as a work of expression is created. However, under the Copyright Act, a copyright owner cannot file an action for infringement until “registration…has been made.” 17 U.S.C. §411(a).
The circuit courts are divided as to the meaning of the phrase “registration…has been made,” as set forth in §411(a). Some circuits, including the Ninth Circuit, take the “application approach,” holding that a copyright has been registered, and therefore an action for copyright infringement can be filed, once the copyright owner has filed its application for registration and the application has been received by the Copyright Office. Other circuits, including the Eleventh Circuit, take the “registration approach,” holding that a copyright has not been registered, and therefore an action cannot be filed, until the Copyright Office has actually registered the work.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case to resolve the split in the circuits. The Court held that the “registration approach” is the correct interpretation of §411(a), and that “registration” means action taken by the Register of Copyrights.
The Court explained that the first §411(a) sets forth the rule that an action for infringement cannot be filed until registration of the copyright has been made, while the second sentence provides an exception to the rule. The second sentence states that if a copyright application has been submitted to the Copyright Office, but registration has been refused, the applicant can file an action for infringement if they provide notice of the action and a copy of the complaint to the Register of Copyrights. The Court reasoned that if “registration” meant application, then the second sentence would be superfluous; an applicant could just file suit as soon as they filed their copyright application.
The Court said that the third sentence of §411(a) further supports the “registration approach.” That sentence provides that the Register of Copyrights may optionally join an action with respect to the issue of registrability of the copyright. According to the Court, this sentence would be meaningless if a suit could be filed before the Register had acted on the copyright application.
The Court noted that other sections of the Copyright Act support this interpretation. For example, §411(a) refers to examination of the application by the Register of Copyrights, and includes the steps of determining whether the work is copyrightable and deciding whether to allow or refuse registration. The statutes also provide for preregistration, a specific process which allows an applicant seeking a copyright for a work for which predistribution infringement is a risk (such as a film or musical composition) to receive a limited review by the Copyright Office and the right to file an infringement action prior to registration.
Fourth Estate argued that an applicant may run out of time to file suit while waiting for the Copyright Office to register their copyright. The Court found this argument unpersuasive, pointing out that the average time to obtain a copyright registration is about seven months, leaving plenty of time left in the three-year statute of limitations, and that, in certain cases, an applicant can request expedited processing.
So, the message of this case is clear: the best practice for copyright owners in California, and throughout the U.S., is to file an application to register their copyright as soon as possible for any work for which they might, at some time in the future, need to file an infringement suit.