On March 4, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling on Fourth Estate v. Wall-Street.com, saying,
“We hold, in accord with the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, that registration occurs, and a copyright claimant may commence an infringement suit, when the Copyright Office registers a copyright. Upon registration of the copyright, however, a copyright owner can recover for infringement that occurred both before and after registration.”
So what does that mean for you, the copyright owner?
First and foremost, you still own rights to your copyrighted work. Your creative work is protected once it is in a tangible medium of expression. For example, if you want to license your work, you may.
What the ruling does is essentially delay the process of filing an infringement lawsuit. The average processing time for copyright registrations is about seven months, which means that a copyright owner will have to wait until they have a successful registration, or a refusal in order to proceed with an infringement lawsuit. While a copyright owner can not commence a lawsuit, until after a definitive grant or refusal from the Copyright Office they can discover that infringement has occurred and start calculating damages. Damages can be calculated from when the infringement began.
So what are my thoughts on this ruling?
The ruling itself is quite straightforward. I am not surprised about the ruling. I am surprised of the effect the ruling will have. The processing time for a copyright registration is about seven months. Sharing and even copying can be incredibly quick now with the technologies we have today. With the seven months processing time, along with the speed of the Internet and technology, the damage to a copyrighted work could be practically done by the time a registration is completed and an infringement lawsuit begins.
However, the Court did seem sympathetic to the plight of copyright owners, noting that,
“Delays in Copyright Office processing of applications, it appears, are attributable, in large measure, to staffing and budgetary shortages that Congress can alleviate, but courts cannot cure.”
The Supreme Court of the United States has made copyright suits more clear cut with their ruling, and it stresses the importance of filing for copyright protection early. However, I do wonder how this will affect artist communities in the future.