Last month, a journalism collective called the Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. (“Fourth Estate”) petitioned the United States Supreme Court to review a decision issued by the Eleventh Circuit involving the question of when a copyright holder can properly file a copyright infringement lawsuit. At issue is 17 U.S.C. § 411(a), which states that “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.” Although copyright holders obtain copyright protection immediately upon the creation of a copyrightable work, copyright holders cannot initiate a lawsuit without satisfying the “registration” requirement set forth in 17 U.S.C. § 411(a). According to a Copyright Office circular, this means that “registration (or refusal) is necessary to enforce the exclusive right of copyright through litigation.”
However, the Circuit Courts are split as to whether “registration” as used in 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) includes the mere filing of a registration application or whether it requires that the Copyright Office have actually approved or denied the registration application. Earlier this year, the Eleventh Circuit held in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com that “registration” requires the latter. Because Fourth Estate had applied for copyrights that had not yet been decided upon by the Copyright Office, the Eleventh Circuit held that Fourth Estate could not properly bring its copyright infringement lawsuit against Wall-Street.com, a news website that Fourth Estate claims kept its news stories live after Fourth Estate’s membership was cancelled. Therefore, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Fourth Estate’s complaint.
Now, Fourth Estate asks the Supreme Court to weigh in, reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, and resolve the dispute amongst the Circuit Courts. In the event the Supreme Court hears the case, copyright holders will finally obtain clarity as to whether they may file suit merely after filing an application for a copyright registration. On the other hand, if the Supreme Court declines to hear the case, copyright holders will be forced to continue to evaluate which courts are, or may be, favorable on the issue. If copyright holders are stuck with filing in an unfavorable court, they must evaluate the risks of waiting to file a lawsuit (and potentially paying for an expedited registration) or of jeopardizing dismissal of their complaint.
On November 1, 2017, the Supreme Court distributed the case for conference on November 21, 2017. After that conference, we should know whether the Supreme Court has granted certiorari, and will thus hear the case, or whether the Circuit Court split will remain for the foreseeable future.