SCOTUS Clarifies Two Big Issues

This morning, the US Supreme Court issued two opinions on copyright issues. Shockingly, both were unanimous decisions, too.

First, in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, et al., the court ruled that in order to file suit, the owner of a U.S.-created work must have actually registered the copyright, not just applied for registration. This clarified the rule for everyone since there had been a circuit-split on it before, meaning in some places you could file suit with only an application to register, but not others. So now, if you file suit without an actual registration in hand, not just a case number, your case will be dismissed.

To be accurate, the court also said that a copyright owner whose application to register was refused may also file suit, but there are additional steps in that situation and, frankly, I don’t want to get into that side of things in this post. What is important to know is that, once again, the court has made it clear that the importance of registration can’t be over-emphasized.

The other case was Rimini Street, Inc., et al. v Oracle USA, Inc. et al. At issue in that case was what qualify as costs under the rule that says that “full costs” can be awarded to a prevailing party. Costs are different from “attorneys’ fees” first of all, and those fees weren’t the issue here. Rather, here, it was what specific litigation costs are included under Section 505.

Oracle had been awarded millions of dollars in costs like expert witnesses and e-discovery, and jury consultants. However, those categories of costs aren’t included under a different statute that lists categories of costs recoverable generally (not just for copyright cases). Oracle tried to argue that those costs were legitimately awarded under Section 505, but the court held that the only costs that can be awarded in copyright cases are those in the categories listed in that other statute–basically saying that 505 was limited by that other statute.

This means that when you are considering filing suit, you shouldn’t expect to recover all your costs in litigating that case, no matter how much of a winner your case is. You can recover things like filing fees and costs for copying transcripts, but many of the common costs in litigation today are simply not recoverable under the current statutes. Hopefully congress with make a change to that statute to reflect the realities of litigating in the 21st century, but until that happens, litigating parties will expend more money out of their own pockets.

For both of these cases, the importance of registration still reigns supreme: you can’t get any costs unless your registration is timely and you can’t even get into court unless you have a registration. Since getting a registration takes time (months!), you need to register well before the three year statute of limitations runs out (see FN1 here). Why not register asap after creation to make sure neither issue bites you in the butt?

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