Supreme Court Rules: Copyright Registration Required to File Suit

On March 4, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved an intriguing circuit split in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC. Justice Ginsburg authored the unanimous decision, holding: “registration occurs, and a copyright claimant may commence an infringement suit, when the Copyright Office registers a copyright.” The Court rejected the argument by Fourth Estate that the registration requirement of the Copyright Act was accomplished by filing an application for registration. In its rationale, the Court leaned heavily on the language of the statute.

The Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. §411(a)) reads: “no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title. In any case, however, 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.”

Simply put, the Court stated that, “if application alone sufficed to ‘make’ registration, §411(a)’s second sentence –allowing suit upon refusal of registration –would be superfluous.”

The Court examined other provisions of the statute to interpret the meaning of §411. The Court found that the phrase “after examination” in §401 meant that “registration,” as used in the statute, follows action taken by the Register. The statute provides an exception to the registration requirement before suit through preregistration of a work that may be “vulnerable to predistribution infringement –notably a movie or musical composition,” and permits the start of an infringement action prior to registration for some live broadcasts.

How will the fashion business be affected by the ruling? This being an industry that spans the world, many creators argued in amicus briefs that requiring pre-suit registration for U.S. authors and domestic works placed them at a disadvantage since such a requirement conflicted with the Berne Convention’s de-emphasis on copyright formalities. However, the Court’s decision noted that the U.S. Congress had the opportunity to amend the copyright statute in 1988, 1993, and 2005, but declined to remove the registration formality in each instance.

The Court also pushed back against Fourth Estate’s argument that the Copyright Office’s processing time for applications was too slow, and instead pointed out that expedited processing was available, albeit for an additional $800 fee. The Court also indicated that the Copyright Office’s slow processing times could be improved should Congress address budgetary and staffing shortages.

In practice, the amount of time the Copyright Office takes to process an application is less relevant once the registration issues.

Since copyright subsists from creation in tangible form, requiring registration prior to commencing a suit for infringement does not preclude copyright owners from recovering compensatory damages from infringement that occurred prior to registration. A registration within three months of first publication will relate back to the publication date for purposes of recovery of statutory damages and attorneys’ fees; and the effective date of the registration is the date on which the copyright application is submitted and completed with the submission of the deposit copy and payment of the registration fee.

The Court’s decision is understandable as it is compelled by the statutory language. But what does this mean for creators, practitioners, and other stakeholders? Only the future will tell the long term effects in the fashion industry, but the message remains clear: if a design that is protectable by copyright is important, register it as soon as you can, preferably before it is distributed or displayed to the public, if you want to obtain the best protection and the broadest remedies in the United States.

Credit: Candace R. Arrington

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