The verdict is finally in. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court released its opinion in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation v. Wall-Street.com, LLC. The court held that to bring a copyright infringement lawsuit under the federal Copyright Act, the Register of Copyrights must have acted on the copyright application in question by either granting or denying the registration.

Registration approach

The court adopted the so-called registration approach. The Copyright Act says that a copyright owner may file an infringement suit in federal court under the Act after “registration … has been made.” The registration approach interprets this to mean that the Registrar must have processed and made a decision on the application first.

Application approach

Advocates of the “application approach” had urged the interpretation that filing the complete application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office should be enough to satisfy the registration prerequisite for the lawsuit, especially since the applicant has no control over how long it will take to process the application.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion. She had missed the oral arguments for health reasons, but participated based on the transcript and filings.

Interestingly, the opinion is unanimous with all nine justices in agreement. We wrote in our February 13 post that some court watchers felt Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh seemed to lean toward the application approach, but when all was said and done, there was consensus on the registration approach.  

This opinion resolves disagreement among the federal Circuit Courts of Appeal. (Notably, the Ninth Circuit, of which California is a part, had taken the opposite view and embraced the application approach.)

Reasoning

Reasoning of the Supreme Court included:

  • The delay in filing the lawsuit while waiting for the registration decision is not that harmful to the copyright owner because the suit allows recovery of damages for infringing activity both before and after the registration is issued.
  • The language within the other sentences of the relevant statutory section supports the registration approach.
  • In narrow circumstances when early infringement is likely for certain workssuch as a pre-released movie or live broadcast, a preregistration option is available that allows the lawsuit filing before the Register’s decision on the registration application. If filing an application were enough to allow a suit, there would be no need for the preregistration process exception.
  • Legislative history and congressional intent support the registration approach.

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