U.S. Supreme Court Votes Unanimously: If a Copyright Registration Isn’t Finalized, You Can’t Sue

A long-running dispute over copyright litigation has now been settled.

When exactly can a copyright lawsuit begin?

Previously, U.S. Circuit Courts were offering conflicting guidance on the matter.  In fact, a total of four different decisions made it unclear if a legal action could begin once a registration with the U.S. Copyright Office was filed, or if that filing had to be formally accepted and registered before any litigation could commence.

Just this (Monday) morning, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a registration must be fully completed by the U.S. Copyright Office before any litigation proceedings can commence.  Even if that process takes months to complete (which it oftentimes does).

“Registration occurs, and a copyright claimant may commence an infringement suit, when the Copyright Office registers a copyright,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the unanimous majority.  “Upon registration of the copyright, however, a copyright owner can recover for infringement that occurred both before and after registration.”

The case was actually a challenge of a recent Eleventh Circuit Court ruling, which ordered that legal action could only commence once a registration was fully accepted and entered by the Copyright Office.   In its decision, the Eleventh merely noted that “filing an application does not amount to registration”.

The case was brought by the Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp., a journalism consortium, which argued that severe delays at the U.S. Copyright Office were making it impossible to conclude a copyright case before the statute of limitations ran its course.  The Fourth Estate was litigating against Wall-Street.com, a site accused of plagiarizing articles.

In such situations, the journalist group argued that time was of the essence.  But Ginsburg disagreed with that assessment, arguing that the Copyright Office often turns around registrations in seven months.  That’s not exactly overnight delivery, but it still offers enough of a window to resolve a legal case, at least in the opinion of the Supreme Court.

“Fourth Estate raises the specter that a copyright owner may lose the ability to enforce her rights if the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations runs out before the Copyright Office acts on her application for registration,” Ginsburg wrote.  “Fourth Estate’s fear is overstated, as the average processing time for registration applications is currently seven months, leaving ample time to sue after the register’s decision.”

There will be some exceptions to this rule, however, especially for works prone to piracy.  “In limited circumstances, copyright owners may file an infringement suit before undertaking registration,” the ruling continued.  “For example, a copyright owner who is preparing to distribute a work of a type vulnerable to predistribution infringement — e.g., a movie or musical composition — may apply to the Copyright Office for preregistration.”

Sadly, the decision doesn’t solve the long turnaround times offered by the U.S. Copyright Office.  That issue has only been compounded in 2019, with a multi-week U.S. Government shutdown wreaking havoc on functions like these.

Incidentally, the U.S. Copyright Office claimed that copyright registrations were being processed as normal during the recent shutdown.  But the minute the government was ‘restored,’ threats of a second shutdown loomed.  The obvious takeaway for government employees is that paycheck security is a thing of the past, and many are undoubtedly brushing off their resumes and reducing any extra time at the office.

On those points, the Supreme Court argued that government bureaucracy and shutdowns were problems to be solved by Congress.  Or, in the recent shutdown, a problem created by Congress (and the President).   Either way, it’s not something the courts can fix.




3 Responses

  1. Joel

    I’ve had copyright registrations take over 3.5 years. I shit you not! Almost a dozen different registrations! Dozens other registrations have taken 2-3 years for them to approve. Then I have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars litigate the stealing of way less money than the suing process costs? The entire system is broken!!!

  2. Versus

    The copyright process is ludicrously slow.
    So what is best practice for musicians? Register an early version of a song, long before it’s fully produced and released?

  3. Anonymous

    I don’t quite understand how you can prevent someone from filing a lawsuit because, from what I understand, the copyright exists the moment the material is affixed to a medium or broadcast. In other words, copyright is not based solely on the registration with the US Gov Copyright office. That registration does give you additional protection and the right to sue for some specific damages that you can not sue for when the material is not registered, but does not indicate that you are not the copyright owner and therefore a copyright lawsuit should still be your option even before it is registered with the office. In addition to this, there is no reason why a suit can not be filed and postponed until the copyright registration process is completed. Something is not right here and I will need to read the ruling.