Supreme Court: Copyright Applications Don’t Give Ability to Sue

On March 4, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a copyright owner must have a federal copyright registration in order to sue a potential infringer in federal court. Simply filing a federal copyright application is not enough to file a federal suit.

The decision comes after the court agreed to review a copyright litigation case in 2018 with the intent to clarify the longstanding question of whether a copyright application or registration was needed to file a lawsuit (Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, et al.).

Until today, federal courts have historically been divided on the copyright lawsuit issue. That, in turn, caused continued confusion for the public as to how most effectively (and when) to protect a copyright (which is the exclusive legal right given to an originator or an assignee to print, perform, film or record literary, artistic or musical material).

The Supreme Court’s ruling underscores the importance of securing a U.S. copyright registration as soon as possible. Any delay in filing an application, and then securing an official copyright registration from the U.S. Copyright Office, may further expose a body of work to infringement or misappropriation to the point that it’s too late to recover adequate monetary damages. Such a delay may also prevent a copyright owner from timely asserting his or her rights against a potential infringer.

It can take more than a year from the time of filing an application to the point of securing a copyright. Therefore, it is prudent for copyright owners to consider filing early and often, especially since the process is relatively inexpensive and offers significant benefits and advantages. Most importantly, a copyright owner should be ready to take immediate action if and when an infringement or misappropriation issue arises.

If you have copyright questions or concerns, please reach out to our Intellectual Property team. We’d be happy to help.

Sean Mellino is an attorney with Walter | Haverfield who focuses his practice on intellectual property law. He can be reached at smellino@walterhav.com or at 216-928-2925.