Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a major decision over the timing of copyright infringement lawsuits.
On March 4, the Supreme Court settled a longstanding circuit split by holding that parties can only sue for infringement when they have registered the copyright. In some federal courts, plaintiffs could sue for copy- right infringement even if they hadn’t yet completed registration for that copyright, but merely applied for it. The high court’s ruling in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street. com, however, will have more content producers pay rush fees to register their works or else wait months for the chance to go after infringers.
Under federal copyright law, plain- tiffs can’t file an infringement complaint until “registration of the copyright claim has been made.” The 5th and 9th Circuits, however, considered registration to have “been made” for a work once the claimant submitted an application and paid ling fees. That allowed media companies and other claimants to sue for infringement even as they waited for the Copyright Office to process the copyright registration. The Supreme Court, however, adopted the “registration approach” for copyright litigation, which had been picked up by several appellate courts including the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2005.
In the underlying case, Fourth Estate licensed articles to Wall-Street. com. But after Wall-Street.com canceled the licensing agreement, Fourth Estate sued the site when it failed to take down Fourth Estate’s content. Fourth Estate brought the suit while it was still registering the copyrights for that content. The 11th Circuit, taking the registration approach, affirmed the complaint’s dismissal.
The high court agreed, reasoning that to “make registration” doesn’t mean applying for registration. The only sensible reading of the statute, the court held, was that “the phrase ‘registration … has been made’ refers to the Copyright Office’s act granting registration, not to the copyright claimant’s request for registration.”
Some media organizations decried the Fourth Estate ruling, saying it could leave their works vulnerable to infringement while they await the Copyright Office’s months-long processing for registration.