Supreme Court Says Of Course You Need To Register Your Copyright Before You Can Sue; Copyright Trolls & Hollywood Freak Out

from the oh,-poor-souls dept

17 USC 411(a) (part of US Copyright law) states the following:

...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.

This is pretty clear. It also becomes important in a surprising number of situations and cases, including quite a few we've discussed just recently, such as the various copyright lawsuits over dances in Fortnite, where it appears that none of the "dances" were actually registered with the Copyright Office. Copyright trolls, also, are somewhat notorious for threatening lawsuits over works without any copyright registration at all.

So it's a bit bizarre that the Supreme Court even needed to weigh in on this, but there was a bit of technical confusion between a bunch of circuits as to whether or not you could sue as soon as you submitted a registration application, or if you had to wait until the Copyright Office issues the actual certificate of registration. While getting a registered copyright is mostly (though not entirely) a rubber stamp process by the Copyright Office, it still takes about six to seven months right now, though the Copyright Office has been upgrading its technology (after some earlier hiccups under the previous regime), and insists that before long the timing will be one of weeks, rather than months.

In a unanimous ruling, surprisingly written by Justice Ginsburg, the court ruled that the law is pretty clear and you have to wait until registration is complete and the certificate has been issued by the Copyright Office. It comes down to the Justices just reading what the law actually says and saying "um, that's pretty clear." Indeed, the ruling basically says the wording of the law wouldn't make any sense if it meant you just had to submit the application to be able to sue:

If application alone sufficed to “ma[ke]” registration, §411(a)’s second sentence—allowing suit upon refusal of registration—would be superfluous. What utility would that allowance have if a copyright claimant could sue for infringement immediately after applying for registration without awaiting the Register’s decision on her application? Proponents of the application approach urge that §411(a)’s second sentence serves merely to require a copyright claimant to serve “notice [of an infringement suit] . . . on the Register.” See Brief for Petitioner 29–32. This reading, however, requires the implausible assumption that Congress gave “registration” different meanings in consecutive, related sentences within a single statutory provision. In §411(a)’s first sentence, “registration” would mean the claimant’s act of filing an application, while in the section’s second sentence, “registration” would entail the Register’s review of an application. We resist this improbable construction.

As for the claims that by requiring a copyright holder to wait infringement can go on for a while, the Court points out that the law still lets them go after all that past infringement after getting the registration:

If infringement occurs before a copyright owner applies for registration, that owner may eventually recover damages for the past infringement, as well as the infringer’s profits. §504. She must simply apply for registration and receive the Copyright Office’s decision on her application before instituting suit. Once the Register grants or refuses registration, the copyright owner may also seek an injunction barring the infringer from continued violation of her exclusive rights and an order requiring the infringer to destroy infringing materials.

The court also takes a dim view on the idea that it takes too long to get the registration, and this could impact the statute of limitations on suing (three years):

Fourth Estate raises the specter that a copyright owner may lose the ability to enforce her rights if the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations runs out before the Copyright Office acts on her application for registration. Brief for Petitioner 41. Fourth Estate’s fear is overstated, as the average processing time for registration applications is currently seven months, leaving ample time to sue after the Register’s decision, even for infringement that began before submission of an application

Furthermore, Ginsburg notes that even if it's taking the Copyright Office a long time, that's an issue for Congress to deal with rather than the courts:

True, the statutory scheme has not worked as Congress likely envisioned. Registration processing times have increased from one or two weeks in 1956 to many months today. See GAO, Improving Productivity in Copyright Registration 3 (GAO–AFMD–83–13 1982); Registration Processing Times. Delays in Copyright Office processing of applications, it appears, are attributable, in large measure, to staffing and budgetary shortages that Congress can alleviate, but courts cannot cure.

The surprising aspect of this is that Ginsburg wrote the decision. Historically, Justice Ginsburg has never seen a copyright case where she wouldn't support the more Hollywood-friendly interpretation. Whether you agree with Ginsburg on other issues or not, she's generally... awful on copyright with the infamous Eldred ruling being a key example (if you want to read a good half-book long rant about just how badly Ginsburg messed up nearly every aspect of the Eldred ruling, I highly recommend the book No Law, which has some choice words for that particular decision).

Still, this decision was a pretty straightforward reading of the statute, and in some ways builds on the basis that Ginsburg set forth in Eldred, in which she more or less says "hey, Congress can do what Congress wants regarding copyright." And here, Congress has said you need to register to sue.

What's amusing, though, is that this fairly minor step has Hollwyood and its friends completely flipping out about how much more difficult it's going to be to stop piracy. But this makes no sense. Once a work is out there, it's out there. It's not like being able to sue a few months earlier is going to stop works from leaking or being available. And suing is usually not the most efficient way to stop the spread of something anyway (the DMCA takedown process still works...).

Of course, those who should really be worried are the copyright trolls who got kind of complacent about these things over the past few years. As Fight Copyright Trolls first noticed, prolific copyright trolling operation Malibu Media, has already been hit with an Order to Show Cause in response to this case for suing over works where no registration had been made:

It is hereby ORDERED that Plaintiff show cause in writing by March 12, 2019, why its complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted — specifically, for failure to allege that registration or preregistration of the copyright claims at issue had “been made” prior to the filing of this action. 17 U.S.C. § 411(a); see Fourth Estate Pub. Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, No. 17-571, 2019 WL 1005829 (U.S. Mar. 4, 2019). If Plaintiff fails to show good cause, or does not file anything by that date, the Court may dismiss this action without further notice to Plaintiff.

Anything that causes more problems for copyright trolls has to be a good thing.

Filed Under: applications, copyright, copyright office, copyright registration, copyright trolls, litgiation, registration, ruth bader ginsburg, supreme court
Companies: fourth estate, wall-street.com


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2019 @ 11:12pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Goddamnit jhonnie. You can only protect so hard before you project BACK TO THE FUTURE!


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