Copyright Registration: conditional, not jurisdictional

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court handed down yet another decision that may be mainly of interest to civil procedure aficionados such as myself.  But since it deals with an issue that causes some confusion in copyright cases, and also because it has some bearing on whether such global agreements in the electronic publishing field can move forward, it probably deserves some attention.  In Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, the District Court had approved the settlement of a class action resolving a dispute between authors and online publishers.  (not to be confused with theGoogle book settlement, which is a different case)  The named plaintiffs in the case had all registered their copyrights in at least one article that was reproduced electronically without their permission.  The class also included, however, a number of authors who had never registered their works.  Because of these class members’ failure to comply with the requirement of Section 411(a) of the Copyright Act that no civil action for copyright infringement may be brought without registration of the copyright, the Second Circuit Court of Appeal on it s own motion refused to approve the settlement of claims of those authors of unregistered works.  (It is interesting that although these authors objected to certain terms of the settlement, none of the parties to the case objected to the courts’ ability to hear and determine the case.)

Under these unusual circumstances, the Supreme Court held that although Section 411(a) creates a condition to an infringement action, that requirement is not jurisdictional.  That means the court had the power to determine the claims of authors of unregistered works, even though these authors had not satisfied what appears to be an essential condition of bringing suit.  This result can be justified as a matter of statutory construction.  It can also be justified as a practical resolution of a dispute that all of the parties wanted the federal courts to resolve.  Does it make a difference for a copyright-holder considering an infringement action whether the registration requirement is jurisdictional or is just a condition of filing suit?  Probably not, unless the copyright holder can figure out some other way to piggy-back his infringement claims into a federal court action, as the non-registering authors did in this case.

As for what Muchnick thinks of the case named after him, go here.

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