On what date is my copyright actually registered? Fourth Estate v. Wall-Street.com

On what date is my copyright actually registered? Fourth Estate v. Wall-Street.com

Copyright law in the United States grants an author a copyright when a work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  The term author is used in the statute but that term can included a number of different creative professions, like artists, musicians, sculptors, and writers.  A work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression when it is preserved in a way that allows the work to last for more than a few moments, like when a musician writes notes on paper or a writer saves their book to a hard drive.  The United States Copyright Office, a part of the Library of Congress, is the official United States government body that maintains records of copyright registration in the United States. Registration of a copyrighted work will grant a creator additional rights, but registration is not necessary for the copyright to be granted to the creator.

One of the rights granted to a creator when they register a copyright with the United States Copyright Office is the ability to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement in United States Federal Court.  A creator is granted a copyright at the moment the work is fixed, but one of the documents that must be shown to a court in a copyright infringement complaint is proof that the work was registered with the United States Copyright Office.  The date the copyright on a work was registered also affects what damages a copyright owner can claim in a copyright infringement lawsuit.

The United States is made up of a network of courts that interpret the same laws.  Sometimes two judges can look at the same law and interpret the law in different ways, in that case the judge is obligated to look at the precedent set by higher courts.  Federal District Courts are obligated to follow the precedent of the Federal Circuit Courts and all the courts are obligated to follow the precedent of the United States Supreme Court.

Statutory interpretation of copyright law is the main issue in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, 17-571 (U.S. 2017).  In that case there is a question as to what date a a copyrighted work is actually registered, the date the registration is filed by the copyright owner, or the date the United States Copyright Office approves the registration. 17 U.S.C §411(a) of the Copyright Act provides that no civil action for infringement of a copyright in any United States work shall be filed until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made.  The Fifth Circuit and Ninth Circuit courts have held that filing the application for registration is enough.  Tenth Circuit and Eleventh Circuit Courts have held that §411(a) is not satisfied until the United States Copyright Office has approved the application for registration.

The outcome of this case will be important because timing is everything.  It can take the United States Copyright Office several months to process an application, the plaintiff might be barred from filing suit because the application was not approved until after the statute of limitations for copyright infringement has passed.  On the other hand United States Copyright Office can reject applications for copyright registration, which would spare some defendants the time and cost of defending a frivolous copyright infringement lawsuit.

Both interpretations of the statute have upsides and downsides.  The United States Supreme Court will have to resolve the differences between the Circuit Court precedents.

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