On January 8, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC. The court is expected to resolve a decades-old split of opinion among the federal Circuit Courts on whether the Copyright Act permits a lawsuit to be filed upon submission of a copyright application or not until the copyright registration certificate has been issued or refused.
The language in the statute is simple. 17 U.S.C. § 411 reads: “no civil action shall be instituted until … registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.” The statute also provides that, “[i]n any case … where the deposit, application, and fee required for registration have been delivered to the Copyright Office in proper form and registration has been refused, the applicant is entitled to institute a civil action for infringement if notice thereof, with a copy of the complaint, is served on the Register of Copyrights.”
In this case, Fourth Estate sued Wall-Street.com when the website continued to publish Fourth Estate’s work after the expiration of the limited license that had been granted to the website. Fourth Estate filed copyright applications for the misappropriated online publications and then asserted a claim for copyright infringement; however, its claim was dismissed by the Eleventh Circuit because the Copyright Office had not yet issued registration certificates. As have the Courts of Appeal for the Third and Seventh Circuits, the Eleventh Circuit follows the Tenth Circuit’s “registration approach,” which requires the Copyright Office to have acted on an application for registration by approving or denying it prior to initiating a lawsuit. The Fifth and the Ninth Circuits, however, follow the “application approach,” which allows for the commencement of an action upon filing a copyright application.
The split among those courts has large implications for photographers, writers, musicians, and fashion designers. For instance, the Copyright Office application processing time is notoriously slow: it can range from six months to more than a year to issue a registration. Creators are forced to endure an unpredictable wait time – or avoid that delay by paying an additional $800 special handling fee for expedited processing. In a seasonal industry such as fashion, where trends evolve so quickly and styles head to market within just a few months from creation, a small company cannot afford to sit back and wait for its copyright applications to be processed if infringement appears to be a credible threat, but it may also find that filing multiple applications with very significant expedited processing fees imposes an unacceptably great financial burden.
The fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar international industry. It has been argued that requiring the issuance of a registration certificate (or a refusal to register from the Copyright Office) for American authors and domestic works before litigation can commence conflicts with the de-emphasis on copyright formalities established by the Berne Convention, which governs copyrights across the globe. For now, this is all in the hands of the Supreme Court. We will provide a follow-up post when its decision is rendered.
Credit: Candace R. Arrington
If you were hoping that following the Supreme Court’s decision in Star Athletica you might learn whether common stripes, chevrons, color blocks and zig zags are sufficiently original to be copyrightable—a question expressly reserved by the Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit– you will be disappointed. On August 10, 2017, the district court permitted Varsity Brands to voluntarily dismiss its copyright infringement action against Star Athletica with prejudice, over the objection of Star Athletica, which wished to pursue its counter-claims seeking to invalidate the Varsity Brands copyrights.
You might well ask, as we did, why after seven years of largely successful litigation, Varsity Brands would be permitted to walk away. Or you might ask, as we also did, why Star Athletica would object to having the suit end with no apparent injunctive or other relief awarded against it. Both are fair questions and the answer to each is unusual: The insurance company that was defending Star Athletica reached a settlement agreement with Varsity Brands, without the participation or approval of Star Athletica. The terms of the settlement are confidential. The only clue is the court’s reservation to Varsity Brands of the right to return to court if it does not receive the payment from the insurer required by the settlement. As far as Varsity Brands is concerned, not only does it get money, but it also avoids the potential for invalidation of its copyrights, having made its point that the two dimensional designs reflected in its uniforms are separable from their utilitarian features and theoretically capable of copyright protection. It now has a stronger threat to hurl at potential competitors.
But what of Star Athletica and its interest in settling its rights to compete with Varsity Brands in the cheerleading uniform market? In the view of the court, Star Athletica receives what is in effect immunity from future claims of copyright infringement related to the copyrights and uniforms at issue in the action. And also in the court’s view, Star Athletica’s counter-claims to invalidate the copyrights were only defenses to the copyright infringement claims and not independent bases for legal action once the threat of copyright liability was removed. And that is the rub: Varsity Brands has many other copyright registrations for which similar challenges to their validity might (or might not) have merit. Because the court did not provide guidance on that fundamental point, competing uniform makers remain exposed to similar infringement claims.
One can’t help feeling that the broader fashion public had an interest in the resolution of the question of whether stripes and chevrons are original when applied to garments. But it is an axiom of federal court litigation that the courts do not decide hypothetical cases or controversies for the edification of the public.
For now, if you are interested in whether stripes can be protected in fashion, you will have to focus on trademarks and not copyrights. There is always Gucci’s suit against Forever 21 for knocking off what it claims is its stripes trademark. And then, too, there is Adidas’ pending suit against Skechers for knocking off its three stripe trademark. The district court in Oregon just decided that Adidas’ trademark infringement suit can proceed.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman
While the Supreme Court’s recent healthcare and marriage equality rulings garnered a lot of attention, there was another decision at the end of the Court’s term that may be more meaningful to the business of fashion – Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, the Spiderman patent litigation. Steven Kimble secured a patent for a Spiderman toy that shot the character’s “webs” from a hand. Marvel, owner of the character, purchased the patent to resolve a claim of patent infringement, promising to pay royalties on sales of the toy.
The popularity of the toy outlived the twenty-year patent term. Under a fifty-year-old Supreme Court decision, the obligation to pay royalties under a contract ends when the patent term expires, even if the agreement contains no termination date. Court decisions have applied the same rule to copyright licenses and assignments.
The Spiderman case called for the Supreme Court to reconsider the rule and permit the continued collection of royalties as provided in the contract. Although conceding that the fifty-year-old case might have been wrongly decided, as a number of courts and commentators have noted, the Court declined the opportunity to overrule it. Instead, it advised that, if the rule is to be changed, it is up to Congress to do so. Spidey is now free to cast his web without writing any more checks.
The decision is a reminder to licensors that patent and copyright rights do not last forever. In contrast, trademarks last as long as they are used and protected and trade secrets last as long as their secrecy is maintained. Joining a license for patents and copyrights with related trademarks or trade secrets can be a good way to maintain royalties after the patents and copyrights have expired. Licensees, on the other hand, should periodically investigate whether they are paying royalties under patents or copyrights that may have expired.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman