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U.S. Supreme Court holds that a copyright owner must register their work before filing a lawsuit to stop an infringement

By: Brendon Friesen

Copyright law immediately protects a creator’s original work once reduced from a mere idea to a “medium of expression” such as artwork, novels, photography and video. Among other rights, the creator has the exclusive right to copy it. While copyright exists at common law, if you want the full protection and remedies offered by the U.S. Copyright Act you must deposit your work with the Copyright Office and pay a fee. Many do not take that extra step to protect their original work.

The Supreme Court shook the copyright world on March 4, 2019 with its decision in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation v Justice Ruth Ginsberg issued the decision, finding that copyright owners must register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office before bringing a lawsuit to stop infringement. Prior to the Fourth Estate decision, Circuit Courts were split on the issue – some of which allowed copyright owners to apply for registration at the time of filing the lawsuit. The wait-and-see approach became common practice and, according to Justice Ginsberg, defeated the purpose of the Copyright Act and intent of Congress. The Court believed that forgiving the failure to register de-incentivized copyright owners to take the required steps to register their copyright at, or before, the time of publication. The decision, while perhaps consistent with the language of the Copyright Act, is problematic if you have not already taken steps to register your copyright. The current review period of the Copyright Office from submission to registration, assuming there are no problems faced in the process, can be months, not days or weeks. That is, the copyright owner must wait months to bring a lawsuit to stop an infringement.

What does this mean for you? That original work you created is always at risk of infringement. If you have not taken steps to register the copyright, given the Fourth Estate decision, you’ll be sitting on the sidelines before you can get in the game to defend your turf. All the while, the bad guys are cashing in on your hard work and just might get away with it for not more than a slap on the wrist. Also keep in mind that certain statutory damages, up to $150,000 for each violation plus attorney’s fees, are not available if the infringement occurred after publication and before your effective date of registration. So take that extra step and get your copyright registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.