Rightsholders Can’t Sue Without a Copyright Certificate, Supreme Court Rules

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The US Supreme Court has ruled that creators can't sue someone for copyright infringement before they've obtained a copyright registration certificate. In a unanimous decision, Justice Ginsburg clarifies that applying for a copyright registration is not sufficient. Major copyright holders are not happy with the decision, but for some others it may offer hope.

In pretty much every part in the world, creators can claim copyright on their work without having to register anything.

This is also true in the United States. However, when rightsholders want to sue someone for copyright infringement, they have to back up this claim.

Over the years, US courts have issued mixed judgments on what kind of ‘proof’ is required. Some held that it’s enough when a creator applied for a registration certificate at the Copyright Office, while others required registration to be completed.

This week the US Supreme Court put an end to the split decisions. In the case between Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation and Wall-Street.com, the Court unanimously decided that copyright holders must wait for a registration certificate before filing a lawsuit.

The case in question dealt with news articles that were published without permission, but the outcome of the case will affect all future copyright cases. This ranges from potential pre-release movie and leaks to the thousands of copyright-trolling cases that are filed every year.

The latter is particularly relevant as the majority of the copyright lawsuits are filed against alleged BitTorrent downloaders. The rightsholders that file these suits don’t always have a copyright registration certificate. Following the Supreme Court decision, several defense attorneys indicated that this decision may help their clients.

“It is very relevant for our BitTorrent copyright defense practice,” Jeffrey Antonelli noted on Twitter.

Rightsholders are less pleased with the Supreme Court’s opinion, however. The RIAA said it is disappointed with the ruling which will require more time before copyright holders can take action against alleged copyright infringement.

“This ruling allows administrative backlog to prejudice the timely enforcement of constitutionally based rights and prevents necessary and immediate action against infringement that happens at Internet speed,” the RIAA commented.

“Given this ruling, the Copyright Office must also work at Internet speed to ensure adequate enforcement protects essential rights.”

At the moment it takes months before a copyright registration certificate is issued. That can be problematic in a world where new content is produced at an increasingly rapid rate. This problem is also highlighted by the Copyright Alliance.

“[O]n average, it takes the Copyright Office six months to process a claim. That average goes up to nine months if a Copyright Office Examiner needs to correspond with a copyright owner. In a world of viral, online infringement, a lot of damage can be done to a copyrighted work while an owner is powerless to stop it,” Copyright Alliance’s Terry Hart writes.

The Supreme Court is well aware of the registration delays. However, in the order, it notes that this doesn’t change how Congress intended the law, which requires a proper copyright registration certificate.

“Delays, in large part, are the result of Copyright Office staffing and budgetary shortages that Congress can alleviate, but courts cannot cure. Unfortunate as the current administrative lag may be, that factor does not allow this Court to revise §411(a)’s congressionally composed text,” Justice Ginsburg notes.

While the ruling is seen as a drawback for major rightsholders, pre-registration of copyright still remains available to certain classes. This was granted under the Artist’s Rights and Theft Prevention Act of 2005 and applies to movies and music that have yet to be published.

For various types of user-generated content, the ruling may pose a challenge though. People who want to sue someone for copying their viral video without permission will first need to go through the full registration process.

A copy of the Supreme Court ruling in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com is available here (pdf).


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