Now that my series on intellectual-property (IP) damages is complete, I would like to discuss the latest Supreme Court IP decisions. The Supreme Court issued two decisions that specifically addressed copyright law on March 4, 2019. This blog will discuss the decision relating to copyright registration requirements.

In Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v., 586 U.S. ___ (2019), the Supreme Court considered whether a copyright owner must wait until after the copyright registration process is complete before filing a copyright infringement lawsuit. This issue has created a split in authority throughout the U.S. for many years.

In the U.S., as is the case in most of the world, copyright protection arises once an idea is fixed in a medium. This means that once an idea is put on paper (or stored in a memory device), the expression of the idea is subject to copyright protection. However, in most cases, the owner of that copyright cannot sue to enforce the copyright unless he or she registers the copyright at the U.S. Copyright Office.

The copyright registration process can take several months but is very straightforward, so that most applications that are filed are likely to issue as registrations. Additionally, the relevant statute allows copyright owners to file a copyright infringement lawsuit even when a registration application is rejected.

As a consequence, many copyright owners have attempted to file copyright infringement actions before the registration process was complete. For many years, however, it was unclear whether it was proper to do so.

The Supreme Court considered the legislative history of the relevant provisions of the Copyright Act and determined that Congress originally intended to require copyright owners to complete the registration process before filing a copyright-infringement lawsuit. The Court acknowledged that the “lengthy delays” in the registration process were somewhat inconsistent with what the legislators envisioned. However, the Court ultimately held that the remedy was not to reinterpret the statute, which means that the Supreme Court had to find that obtaining a copyright registration certificate is a prerequisite for filing a copyright infringement lawsuit.

In the same decision, the Court also recognized that copyright owners could obtain damages for copyright infringement that occurred before the registration process was complete.