On Monday, the Supreme Court released its decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. The issue there was whether the equitable doctrine of laches could ever bar infringement claims that are brought within the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations period. The Court held that it could not.

But in doing so, did the Court inadvertently weigh in on an unrelated issue, one that is currently the subject of one the widest circuit splits in copyright law?

Application and Registration Approaches

Under US copyright law, works are protected as soon as they are created. However, the law does provide for a voluntary registration mechanism that confers a number of benefits. For example, registration is a prerequisite to filing an infringement lawsuit. Section 411(a) provides 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.”

Circuits are split on whether Section 411(a) requires a registration to have been processed by the US Copyright Office before a copyright holder can bring suit or whether the requirement is satisfied as soon as the Office receives the application.

The Tenth1 and Eleventh Circuits2 take the first view, the “registration” approach. The Fifth,3 Seventh,4 and Ninth Circuits5 embrace the second, the “application” approach.

The issue remains unresolved in other Circuit Courts. Just this past March, the First Circuit had an opportunity to adopt an approach but declined, as there was no evidence the plaintiff had submitted an application at all, making the question moot.6 While some observers have said the Eighth Circuit has taken the application approach, it does not seem to have definitively ruled on the issue.7

District courts within the Second Circuit are split,8 as are courts in the Fourth.9 (Just last week, a District Court in Virginia took the application approach.)10

The three major copyright treatises, by the way, follow the same pattern as the courts, with Patry in favor of the registration approach, Nimmer favoring the application approach, and Goldstein taking no position.

Which Approach?

The strongest support for the registration approach comes from the plain text of the statute. Section 411(a) says no action for infringement shall be instituted “until registration” has been made, and other provisions in the Copyright Act detail a set of steps involved in the registration process beyond the receipt of the application.

In adopting the registration approach, the Tenth Circuit noted an additional problem under the application approach: “shifting legal entitlements.” “If, for example, an applicant could obtain the advantage of the presumption that the copyright is valid upon application, see 17 U.S.C. § 408(c), but then, after examination the Register of Copyrights determined the material is not copyrightable, the presumption of validity would swing back and forth.”11

Courts adopting the application approach also find support in the statutory language. They point to the ambiguity in Section 408, which says copyright owners “may obtain registration of the copyright claim by delivering to the Copyright Office the deposit specified by this section, together with the application and fee,” as supportive of either approach. In addition, Section 410(d) could also be read in support of either approach since it provides that the effective date of a registration is the date the application is received by the Copyright Office.

Courts have also found other reasons to support the application approach. Section 411(a) allows the institution of an action for infringement even if the Copyright Office refuses an application. The act of delivering an application, then, is all that is necessary on the part of the copyright owner to be able to file a lawsuit, which makes the actual processing of the application a mere formality—one that serves little function since, as noted above, the effective date of a registration is the date the application is delivered. Requiring strict adherence to this formality, as the registration approach does, incurs real costs—copyright applications currently can take at least 3-5 months to process. A copyright owner will suffer unnecessary damages if infringement continues to occur while she waits for her registration certificate, and may lose the ability to sue if she is toward the end of the statute of limitations period.

Did Petrella Adopt the Registration Approach?

Given the wide disagreement in the Circuits and the persuasive arguments on both sides, it is somewhat surprising that the Supreme Court would touch on this issue.

During a discussion rebutting the argument that there is a danger in losing evidence if a copyright owner remains inactive, the Court notes that the registration mechanism reduces the need for extrinsic evidence, saying, “Although registration is ‘permissive,’ both the certificate and the original work must be on file with the Copyright Office before a copyright owner can sue for infringement.” The reference to a registration certificate being on file with the Copyright Office before a copyright owner can sue strongly suggests the Supreme Court has taken the registration approach. But this is hardly an endorsement of the registration approach. There is no indication that the Court intended to weigh in on the issue, not even a footnote pointing out the Circuit split on the issue.

More importantly, the issue of which approach is correct was not in front of the Court, and its point here was not part of its holding, making it most likely dicta. Even then, given the almost off-handedness of the statement, combined with a lack of any discussion about the different approaches, it is not likely any courts will find this statement particularly persuasive.

Still, this is an issue worth noting by practitioners and copyright owners and underscores the importance of timely copyright registration for creators.

H/T to Leslie Burns for first spotting this issue. 

Footnotes

  1. La Resolana Architects, PA v. Clay Realtors Angel Fire, 416 F.3d 1195, 1202-07 (10th Cir. 2005), abrogated on other grounds by Reed Elsevier, 559 U.S. 154. []
  2. M.G.B. Homes, Inc. v. Ameron Homes, Inc., 903 F.2d 1486, 1488-89 (11th Cir. 1990), abrogated on other grounds by Reed Elsevier, 559 U.S. 154. []
  3. Apple Barrel Prods., Inc. v. Beard, 730 F.2d 384, 386-87 (5th Cir. 1984). []
  4. Chi. Bd. of Educ. v. Substance, Inc., 354 F.3d 624, 631 (7th Cir. 2003). []
  5. Cosmetic Ideas, Inc. v. IAC/Interactivecorp., 606 F.3d 612, 615-21 (9th Cir. 2010). []
  6. Aliciea v. Machete Music, No. 12-1548 (1st Cir. Mar. 7, 2014). []
  7. See Tri-Marketing v. Mainstream Marketing Services, Civ. No. 09-13 (DWF/RLE), 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42694 (D. Minn. May 19, 2009), which held that while the Eighth Circuit appeared to have adopted the application approach in Action Tapes, Inc. v. Mattson, 462 F. 3d 1010 (8th Cir. 2006), the Circuit was not presented with the precise issue of “whether complying with copyright application requirements satisfies the jurisdictional requirements under § 411(a),” thus leaving the question of which approach is correct unresolved. []
  8. Compare Well-Made Toy Mfg. Corp. v. Goffa Intern. Corp., 210 F.Supp.2d 147, 157 (E.D.N.Y.2002) (application approach) to Demetriades v. Kaufmann, 680 F.Supp. 658, 661 (S.D.N.Y.1988) (registration approach). []
  9. See Mays & Associates, Inc. v. Euler, 370 F.Supp.2d 362, 367-370 (D. Md. 2005) for discussion. []
  10. Caner v. Autry, No. 6:14-cv-00004, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66508, (W.D. Va. May 14, 2014). []
  11. 416 F.3d at 1205. []

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