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Supreme Court: Copyright must be registered before bringing infringement lawsuit – authored by Kyle Mendenhall

On Behalf of | Mar 4, 2019 | Uncategorized

After today’s Supreme Court decision in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, it is now more important than ever for copyright owners to file their registration applications with the Copyright Office as soon as possible. While an author gains exclusive rights in his or her work immediately upon its creation, section 411(a) of the Copyright Act of 1976 specifies that “registration of the copyright claim [must have] been made” with the Copyright Office before pursuing an infringement claim in court.

In the decades since the Copyright Act, the Circuit Courts of Appeals have disagreed about the meaning of section 411(a). While some courts have been interpreting this section to mean that the Copyright Office must review and register the mark before an action may be brought, other courts believed a claimant needed only to file their copyright application with the Office before instituting a lawsuit.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court found that a copyright claimant may only commence an infringement suit after the Copyright Office registers the copyright, except under very limited circumstances. Although the Copyright Office takes much longer to register works than in previous decades, the Court believes this is an administrative issue that should be alleviated by Congress, not by the Court.

The practical effect of this decision is that it could take several months after filing an application with the Copyright Office before a claimant is eligible to bring a lawsuit against an infringer. While potential monetary damages may still be available from infringing acts before the registration is granted, the delay while waiting for registration may have serious consequences, for example when the copyright owner would prefer injunctive relief over monetary damages. Therefore, copyright owners who are interested in enforcing their rights against infringers should consider registering their works with the Copyright Office early and often.

Notably, for a hefty fee, a copyright applicant can request Special Handling in order to expedite the registration process. But this is only permitted under specific circumstances, including in anticipation of litigation.

The attorneys at Hovey Williams LLP can assist with registering your copyrighted works and enforcing your rights in court, so please give us a call.

The complete opinion can be found on the Supreme Court’s website: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/17-571_e29f.pdf

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