In a 9-0 opinion issued by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court resolved a division among U.S. Courts of Appeals today on whether an owner of a work must first obtain a copyright registration from the Copyright Office before she may file suit for copyright infringement. The Copyright Act requires that “registration of the copyright claim has been made” before suit can be brought, but the U.S. Courts of Appeals were split on whether “registration” has been made when a copyright owner submits the application, materials, and fee required for registration to the Copyright Office, or only when the Copyright Office issues registration. The Supreme Court held that the Copyright Office must grant a registration before a copyright infringement suit is filed, and submitting an application to the Copyright Office is not enough to meet the “registration” requirement.
The case, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, involved a collective journalist news organization, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation, which licensed works to Wall-Street.com, a news website. Fourth Estate sued Wall-Street.com in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida for copyright infringement of news articles that Wall-Street failed to remove from its website after the parties cancelled their license agreement. The Copyright Act, Title 17 U.S.C. s 411(a), states that “no 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.” Fourth Estate had submitted an application, deposit, and fee to the Copyright Office before filing suit, but the Copyright Office had not yet acted on the application or issued registration. Some circuits, such as the Ninth and Fifth Circuits, had allowed plaintiffs in such circumstances to bring infringement lawsuits against alleged infringers at this stage, taking what is called the “application approach,” whereas other circuits, such as the Eleventh, required that registration be issued by the Copyright Office first, taking what is called the “registration approach.” Judge Robert Scola, Jr. took the “registration approach” and dismissed the case because Fourth Estate had not yet obtained a registration for the works from the Copyright Office. Fourth Estate appealed the Eleventh Circuit and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal, noting that “filing an application does not amount to registration.” The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in June of last year.
Affirming the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment, the Supreme Court unanimously held that under the Copyright Act, a copyright claimant may commence an infringement suit only when the Copyright Office registers a copyright. However, a copyright owner can recover for infringement that occurred both before and after registration.
Fourth Estate argued that a copyright owner may lose the ability of enforce his or her rights if the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations runs out before the Copyright Office acts on his or her application for registration, however, Justice Ginsburg noted that the average processing time for registration applications is seven months, which would leave “ample time to sue after the Register’s decision.”
Justice Ginsburg concluded that the “Copyright Act safeguards copyright owners by vesting them with exclusive rights upon creation of their works and prohibiting infringement from that point forward. To recover for such infringement, copyright owners must simply apply for registration and await the Register’s decision.”