Supreme Court Says Courts Still Have Jurisdiction Over Unregistered Copyrights

from the how-big-a-deal-is-this? dept

There have been a series of lawsuits over the past decade or so concerning newspapers and magazines republishing old content that was created by freelancers in digital format. Basically, the publications had freelancers create content for publication. Years later, this wonderful world we know as the internet became a big deal (and, before that, CD-ROMs) and the publishers wanted to republish their archives in digital format (first CD-ROMs, then the internet or other electronic database). Some of the freelancers got upset, saying that the publications were reusing their content without permission, and that the license to use the content had been for the one use only. Lawsuits were filed and eventually, in the Supreme Court ruled that this violated the rights of freelancers. That set off a flurry of other similar/related lawsuits. In one of those other cases, the publisher and freelancers eventually reached a settlement -- but not all of the freelancers were satisfied with it.

In appealing the settlement, it was noted that many of the freelancers had not registered their copyrights. Now, as you hopefully know, you automatically get copyright on any new content as soon as it's set in tangible form, but if you decide to register it, it gives you additional privileges and remedies against infringement. In most cases, not having a registration greatly limits what you can do in terms of a lawsuit against infringement. So the issue in this lawsuit -- Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick -- became whether or not those unregistered stories (and their authors) could be covered by the settlement.

Copycense points us to the Supreme Court's ruling (pdf) which says that, contrary to what the Appeals Court had ruled, it is perfectly fine to include unregistered copyrights in the court's jurisdiction. While some are reporting that this means you no longer need to register to sue, I don't think that's what the ruling is actually saying. It simply says that just because you haven't registered, it doesn't mean that it's outside of the court's jurisdiction. So it sounds like this means that unregistered copyrights can get included in a settlement/class-action lawsuit like this one, but the holders of those unregistered copyrights might still have difficulty (or great limits) should they try to bring the lawsuit directly themselves. It would be great to get some of the copyright lawyers in the community here to weigh in as well.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    vyvyan, Mar 2nd, 2010 @ 11:33pm

    These monkeys should have been burned on occasion of Berne Convention.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 3rd, 2010 @ 4:53am

    Looks like a two way street, imagine that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Terry Hart (profile), Mar 3rd, 2010 @ 6:47am

    Doesn't change much

    You absolutely still need a registration to sue in just about all cases. The distinction the court drew here was between jurisdictional prerequisites and mandatory rules - a distinction that on the surface can appear to be mere semantics.

    Both bar you from bringing suit, the difference is that mandatory rules have some flexibility while jurisdictional requirements (subject matter jurisdiction, not personal) are for the most part completely rigid. You can't consent to lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, you can't waive it, and if neither party brings the matter up, the court can throw the case out on its own initiative.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    JerryAtrick (profile), Mar 3rd, 2010 @ 7:42am

    MPAA and FCC

    What are the legalities regarding the movie picture association trying to convince the FCC to allow them to release first run movies directly to the consumer instead of releasing the material to theaters? Is that even legal?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 3rd, 2010 @ 8:16am

    It’s amazing how we have a court that rules against freedom of speech whenever it favors the public (ie: this case) but they rule for it when it favors rich corporations (ie: they get to spend what they want). What a scam.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 3rd, 2010 @ 8:18am


    and then those republicans claim to be free market capitalists and that’s why they support allowing corporations to spend what they want on campaigns. Yet when it comes to free markets for the general public and non big corporations they are against free markets. They only want free markets for the rich, not for everyone else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Matt (profile), Mar 3rd, 2010 @ 11:39am

    Re: Doesn't change much

    What Terry said. The Court's ruling here is not novel, and does not change much. Masnick's interpretation seems right: federal courts can hear copyright cases involving unregistered copyrights, but holders of unregistered copyrights cannot bring such cases.

    Where this may change things for some litigants is in counterclaims. If the registration bar were jurisdictional, a litigant could not bring a counterclaim alleging infringement of an unregistered copyright. If it is not, even though one cannot bring an original action one could file the claim as a counterclaim.

    In practice, this means some litigants can save $35. It is common practice to simply register the copyright before filing. For most works doing so is cheap, easy, and noncontroversial, and avoids the question altogether.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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