The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday, March 4, 2019, that a copyright owner may not file an infringement lawsuit until the Copyright Office has registered the work at issue. In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the Court ruled that the Copyright Act’s requirement that a work is “registered” before a lawsuit is filed means that the Copyright Office has actually granted a registration, not just that the application has been submitted.
The case is Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC et al., which was on appeal from the Eleventh Circuit. Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. is a news organization that produces online journalism and then licenses its articles to websites, while retaining the copyright to the articles. Wall-Street.com had obtained licenses to several articles produced by Fourth Estate and was required to remove all of the content from its website before canceling its account. However, when Wall-Street canceled its account, it continued to display the articles, prompting Fourth Estate to file suit for copyright infringement. Fourth Estate had filed an application to register its allegedly infringed copyrights, but the Copyright Office had not yet registered its claims.
In its briefs, Fourth Estate warned that a copyright owner might lose the ability to enforce its rights if the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations runs before the Copyright Office acts on the application for registration.
Justice Ginsberg did not buy this argument. “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,” the Justice wrote.
This decision resolves a long-standing circuit split. Some courts, including the Eleventh Circuit, had previously adopted a similar approach to the one adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, but others had allowed copyright owners to sue as soon as they filed their application.