“Contrary to the petitioner’s narrow focus on litigating convenience, today’s unanimous decision confirms that the Copyright Act advances broad federal-policy concerns that go well beyond the mere convenience of plaintiffs bringing infringement suits.”
—Cory Andrews, WLF Senior Litigation Counsel

 (Washington, DC)—In a unanimous decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court held that § 411(a) of the Copyright Act allows a copyright holder to sue for infringement only after the Register of Copyrights approves or denies that plaintiff’s application to register a copyright.

Today’s decision marks another success for Washington Legal Foundation (WLF), whose amicus curiae brief argued that the plaintiff’s reading of § 411(a) severely disrupts Congress’s broad public goals behind the Copyright Act. By conditioning the right to sue for copyright infringement on the Copyright Register’s review, Congress sought to maintain a public registry of copyright ownership, to conserve judicial resources, and to enlarge the Library of Congress’s collection of copyrighted works. Contrary to the plaintiff’s view, each of those ends is best advanced by the Eleventh Circuit’s registration approach.

Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC resolves a circuit split over whether copyright “registration” means, as the plaintiff here unsuccessfully claimed, merely applying for registration. The Fifth and Ninth Circuits had adopted that view. But the Supreme Court sided with the Eleventh and Tenth Circuits in holding that registration under § 411(a) occurs only when the Copyright Office acts on the application—either by issuing a certificate or by refusing one.

The case arose from an infringement action by the plaintiff, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation, which created online news content and licensed it to third-party websites. The defendants, Wall-Street.com and its owner, Jerrold Burden, published some of the plaintiff’s news articles under a licensing agreement. But after the defendants cancelled that agreement, they allegedly continued displaying the plaintiff’s copyrighted content without permission. So the plaintiff sued for infringement.

While the plaintiff’s copyright application was still pending with the U.S. Copyright Office, the defendants moved to dismiss the complaint. Under § 411(a) of the Copyright Act, before a copyright owner can file an infringement action, he must plead that the Register of Copyrights has acted on the application—either by approving or denying it. Because Fourth Estate could not satisfy the Copyright Act’s pre-suit registration requirement, the district court dismissed the suit. Relying on the text, structure, and history of the Copyright Act, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

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