The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to resolve a long-simmering circuit split over whether copyright owners must fully register their works before suing.
The justices granted a petition for writ of certiorari in the case of Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC, allowing them to answer a question that has split the circuits: What exactly the Copyright Act means when it says a work must be “registered” prior to the filing an infringement lawsuit.
In several circuits, copyright owners can sue as soon as they file the application paperwork with the U.S. Copyright Office; in others, they can’t sue until the office actually registers or takes action on the application, which can take many months if they don’t pay a significant fee for expedited handling.
Fourth Estate, a journalism collective, sued Wall-Street.com for reposting articles without permission in March 2016. But a federal judge tossed the case two months later, saying Fourth Estate had filed its lawsuit before it had fully registered the copyrights for the articles.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed that decision in May, telling Fourth Estate that “filing an application does not amount to registration.”
The ruling came after the U.S. solicitor general urged the justices to tackle the issue and affirm the Eleventh Circuit’s position.
“The text, structure, and history of the Copyright Act confirm that the register must have acted on an application for copyright registration — either by approving or refusing registration — before the copyright owner may institute a copyright-infringement suit,” the government wrote. “Petitioner’s contrary arguments are unavailing.”