This article is the first in a series, discussing the Supreme Court’s decision in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC. issued on March 4, 2019.
Resolving a long-standing circuit split over whether copyright owners must have a copyright registration certificate in hand before filing a copyright infringement suit, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it’s not sufficient to have simply filed a completed application, but that the Copyright Office must act on the application, either to grant or to refuse registration, before a copyright owner can commence a lawsuit to combat infringement. Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, No. 17-571, 2019 WL 1005829 (U.S. Mar. 4, 2019).
Copyright Registration – “Keys to the Courthouse”
Registration of a copyright in a work has long been considered the “keys to the courthouse” for copyright owners – meaning that while creative works written after 1978 were automatically protected by the Copyright Act (Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186, 195 (2003) (confirming that “federal copyright protection . . . runs from the work’s creation”)), their owners could not sue for infringement until those works were registered with the Copyright Office. 17 U.S.C. § 501(b) (providing a private right of action for infringement of a copyright); id. § 411(a) (requiring registration before copyright owner was permitted to institute suit).
Incentives to Prompt Registration – Before Infringement
The Act provides several additional incentives for owners to apply for registration with the Copyright Office as soon as possible. In particular, if a work that has been registered is later infringed, the rights holder could recover statutory damages of up to $30,000 per work infringed (or up to $150,000 per work if the infringement were proven to be willful) and could recover its reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred in connection with enforcing its rights if it prevails in the case. Id. §§ 504(c), 505. Statutory damages and attorney’s fees are not available unless the work had been registered before the infringement occurred or within three months after first publication of the work. Id. § 412(2).
Prior Circuit Split – “Registration” versus “Application” Approaches
Until now, federal courts were split on the issue of whether a registration certificate was required (the “registration approach”) or whether it was sufficient to have submitted a completed application with the mandatory deposit copies and the correct filing fee to the Copyright Office for consideration (the “application approach”) before filing a complaint in federal court. Fourth Estate, 2019 WL 10055829, ¶ 4 (confirming that certiorari was granted to “resolve a division among U.S. Courts of Appeals on when registration occurs in accordance with § 411(a)); see also Cosmetic Ideas, Inc. v. IAC/Interactivecorp, 606 F.3d 612, 615-16 (9th Cir. 2010) (collecting cases and noting circuit split); Zaslow v. Coleman, 103 F. Supp. 3d 657, 663 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (“Courts are divided over whether merely applying to the Copyright Office (the ‘application’ approach), or whether the Office issuing the registration (the ‘registration’ approach), sufficiently satisfies § 411.”). Continue reading