On Monday, the Supreme Court affirmed the 11th Circuit’s decision in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation v Wall-Street.com, holding that a copyright owner may not file an infringement suit or seek other legal remedies until the Copyright Office registers their copyright. The unanimous decision resolved a circuit split on the issue of when a copyright is “registered” within the meaning of the Copyright Act.

The provision at issue is §411(a), which states, “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.” Some circuits have interpreted the registration requirement to be met once the copyright owner has deposited the work with the Office, filed the application, and paid the fee. The Court affirmed the 11th Circuit’s interpretation that registration does not occur until the Office actually responds to the application. The Court bases its decision largely on statutory interpretation of §411(a) and neighboring provisions in the Act.

Music trade organizations and performing rights societies including RIAA and BMI filed an amicus brief for the petitioner, arguing that under the Copyright Act, a copyright owner may commence an action once they have fulfilled their statutory obligations of filing an application. The brief voiced concerns that requiring registration from the Copyright Office would create delays for artists that would ultimately inhibit their ability to enforce their copyrights. The Copyright Office usually takes 7-9 months, and in some cases longer, to respond to a copyright application. The brief notes, “[p]articularly in the case of recently released songs at the peak of their earning potential, it is critical to be able to seek prompt judicial intervention against unauthorized uses.”

Monday’s ruling also has potential to disproportionately harm artists without the resources of a label or publisher. The amicus brief noted that a registration requirement would increase expedited copyright applications, which have an $800 fee. Not only is this prohibitively expensive for independent artists, but the increase in expedited applications could strain the resources of the Copyright Office and cause even longer delays for the standard application process.

RIAA’s response to Monday’s decision echoes these concerns, noting that because copyright infringement today occurs at “Internet speed,” the Copyright Office will have to match that speed in processing applications to ensure that artists are able to adequately enforce their copyrights.

Libby Pica is the Executive Editor of Online Content for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current third year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2019).

Image: “Music – an art for itself – Headphones and music notes / musical notation system” byphotosteve101 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.