Is Your Copyright Enforceable in Federal Court? The United States Supreme Court Reinforces the Impact of Registration

Mar 26, 2019 Published Article

A recent case, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.Com, is bringing to light a fundamental interpretation in copyright law – the actual registration versus seeking registration. On March 4, 2019, the United States Supreme Court held the Copyright Office must actually grant copyright registration before a claimant can file a copyright infringement suit in federal court. At the same time, however, a copyright owner can still recover for infringements that occur both before and after registration of a copyright. Business owners should be very clear of their registration status or run the risk of losing their ability to file a complaint for copyright infringement. If the United States Copyright Office hasn’t confirmed copyright registration, you may not have the ability to enforce your ownership rights after all.

Background on the Case

The main source of dispute in the Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp (FEPBC) case focused on the meaning of registration. On the one hand, FEPBC argued that registration occurs when a copyright owner submits the application, materials, and registration fee to the Copyright Office (the “application approach”), while Wall-Street.Com took the position that registration occurs when the Copyright Office actually grants registration (the “registration approach”). In short, the Supreme Court agreed with Wall-Street.Com and concluded that the registration approach is the only satisfactory reading of the Copyright Act’s registration requirement in anticipation of filing a copyright infringement action.

Copyright Act of 1976

The Court’s ruling supports the Copyright Act of 1976 by making it clear that you must have a granted copyright registration before seeking to enforce your copyright ownership protections in federal court. Works of authorship include the following categories:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audio visual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

Subject to certain exceptions, the owner of a copyright has certain exclusive rights in their work including, rights of reproduction, distribution, and display. In the event of an infringement, the owner of a copyright can file an action in the appropriate United States District Court for copyright infringement. However, no action for infringement of the copyright . . . shall be instituted until registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with the requirements of the Copyright Act.

Key Takeaways to Enforce Your Copyright Protection

The Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. decision is important in the context of copyright infringement law because it confirms that copyright registration is essentially an administrative exhaustion requirement that must be satisfied before filing a copyright infringement lawsuit to enforce copyright ownership rights. In light of this, it is necessary and important to determine the following fundamental questions before filing your copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court:

  1. Has copyright registration for the work of authorship subject to copyright protection been granted by the Copyright Office?
  2. If not, is the failure to obtain copyright registration before filing your copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court subject to any exception?

If you do not take these necessary steps, you may not have the ability to enforce your valuable ownership rights in federal court.