October 26, 2018—Happy Halloween from DuetsBlog! I write today regarding a scary subject: unregistered intellectual property. The horror! Ask any IP professional about registration, and you’re likely to hear that registration is one of the most important steps in protecting IP. Whether it is a patent, trademark, or copyright, registering IP often provides the IP owner greater rights than if the IP was unregistered. There is sometimes an exception for trade secrets, but that’s for another time…
A scary place for some; credit: Gen. Progress
Registering IP, specifically copyrights, may become even more crucial in the future. One of the most important upcoming U.S. Supreme Court cases this term–which begins in October (coincidental?)–is Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC. The appeal addresses the question of whether the creator of an unregistered work may sue for copyright infringement so long as the creator has applied for a copyright on the work, rather than requiring the creator to wait for the Copyright Office to register the work. The dispute comes down to 17 U.S.C. § 411(a), which 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.
Currently, the Fifth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal have held that creators may sue for infringement as soon as they file the appropriate paperwork and fees for registration. Importantly, the Ninth Circuit encompasses Hollywood, providing greater protection to many of the nation’s creators. I ran into this issue myself on a case in these venues, and thankfully the law in these jurisdictions supported bringing a claim for copyright infringement without awaiting registration.
The Tenth and Eleventh Circuits have held that filing for registration is insufficient; a creator must have obtained preregistration or actual registration to sue for infringement. It’s the stuff of nightmares for procrastinating creators in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida!
But creators around the country, especially in Hollywood, let out a collective shriek when the federal Government filed a brief in support of the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, arguing that “a copyright-infringement suit may not be filed until the Register of Copyrights has either approved or refused registration of the work.” Beyond the statutory arguments in support of this position, the Government argued that “although…the registration requirement may temporarily prevent copyright owners from enforcing their rights, that is the intended result of a congressional design to encourage prompt registration for the public benefit.”
Maybe the Government is right; requiring registration will certainly encourage registration. But on the other hand, many small creators either do not have the time or resources to seek registration for every work. However, even in cases in which there is copying, a creator can file an expedited application for registration, which sometimes results in a decision in less than a week. So perhaps the rule from the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits isn’t that scary after all. A non-expedited application can take months, though. Thus, the rule from the Fifth and Ninth Circuits provides greater protections to creators who may face copying immediately after creating a work and who do not have the ability to file an expedited application. We’ll see what’s in the Supreme Court’s candy bowl this term. To be continued…