Supreme Court clarifies basis for why copyright suits over unregistered works should be dismissed

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Supreme Court overturns Second Circuit, holding that a copyright plaintiff’s failure to register the work before filing suit does not deprive the court of subject matter jurisdiction.

Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick, Slip. Op., 559 U.S. ___ (March 2, 2010) [View opinion here]

“Subject matter jurisdiction” refers to a court’s power to hear the matter before it. The Constitution sets out the general contours for the federal courts’ jurisdiction, and Congress enacts statutes that give more detail to this set of powers. Particular statutes can define whether the federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over certain types of cases. For example, Congress has declared that the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over copyright cases (See 28 U.S.C. 1338).

If a court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over the type of matter before it, it has no power to adjudicate the case. So the question of whether subject matter jurisdiction exists is critical.

The Supreme Court just decided a case that deals with the scope of subject matter jurisdiction in copyright cases, and clarifies a notion that has been the subject of some uncertainty. The question the court decided was whether a federal court has subject matter jurisdiction over a copyright case when a work at issue is not the subject of a copyright registration.

Section 411(a) of the Copyright Act (at 17 U.S.C. 411(a)) provides, among other things, that “no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until . . . registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.”

Some courts have held, and many litigants have argued, that this provision of Section 411 is a “jurisdictional prerequisite.” Said another way, some have argued that if the copyright plaintiff files suit without having secured a registration, the court is without subject matter jurisdiction over the case. In the case of Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, however, the Supreme Court held that Section 411 does not deprive the court of subject matter jurisdiction, but instead merely provides a “claim-processing rule,” akin to an element of the case.

The lower court proceedings

A group of freelance writers filed a class action copyright infringement case in federal court in New York. They settled the case and the judge approved the settlement. Some of the plaintiffs objected to the settlement on procedural grounds, and when the court entered final judgment, those objecting plaintiffs appealed to the Second Circuit. On its own motion, the Second Circuit raised the question of whether it had subject matter jurisdiction over the case, as some of the plaintiffs in the class had unregistered works.

The case took on a peculiar procedural aspect — neither side in the dispute argued that the federal court was without subject matter jurisdiction, but the Second Circuit decided anyway that it did not. (After all, subject matter jurisdiction pertains to the power of the court, not the rights of the parties, so parties cannot waive the absence of subject matter jurisdiction.) Concluding that it didn’t have jurisdiction, the Second Circuit reversed the approval of the settlement.

The defendants in the underlying case sought review with the Supreme Court, and the high court took on the case. It reversed the Second Circuit, holding that the court did indeed have jurisdiction, even though some of the plaintiffs’ copyrights at issue were unregistered.

The court’s holding

It is worth noting that this case does not address the bothersome question of whether Section 411 requires that a copyright plaintiff actually have a registration certificate in hand before filing the complaint, or whether he or she simply needs to have the application on file. The case also does not stand for the proposition that one can pursue copyright infringement litigation without having registered his or her copyright. A plaintiff without a registration will still lose, just for different reasons.

Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion. He began the analysis by noting the court’s recent efforts to curtail “drive-by jurisdictional rulings,” which can “miss the critical differences between true jurisdictional conditions and nonjurisdictional limitations on causes of action.” It was with this eye toward careful analysis that the court looked to the present question.

The court reviewed the general approach it set out in the case of Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500 (2006) for distinguishing jurisdictional conditions from claim-processing requirements or elements of a claim, stating in part that “when Congress does not rank a statutory limitation on coverage as jurisdictional, courts should treat the restriction as nonjurisdictional in character.” Said another way, if a statute somehow limits the way a case can be brought before federal court but doesn’t come out and say that it’s a limitation on subject matter jurisdiction, it should not be read as limiting jurisdiction. In this way, the court’s approach is to broaden federal jurisdiction.

In this case, the court found that Section 411(a) did not “clearly state” that the registration requirement is jurisdictional. Moreover, the section of federal law that provides for federal court jurisdiction in general (28 U.S.C. 1331) and federal jurisdiction over copyright claims (28 U.S.C. 1338) says nothing about a requirement that there be a registration before the court has subject matter jurisdiction. Furthermore, Section 411 provides on its face certain exceptions for the registration requirement (e.g., no registration is required for non-United States works). The court observed that “it would be at least unusual to ascribe jurisdictional signifcance to a condition subject to these sorts of exceptions.”

What does it mean?

The case actually addresses a rather nuanced point of copyright law. And the effect of the holding will not change the end results of cases brought in the future with the same facts — after all, a non-registering plaintiff will still lose either way, now just for a different reason. Motions to dismiss copyright complaints alleging infringement of unregistered works will clearly fall under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) (failure to state a claim) and not 12(b)(1) (lack of jurisdiction).

But the question of a federal court’s jurisdiction is of significant import, regardless of how nuanced the question is, or the lack of difference in practical effect. The question of whether a court should dismiss a case because it doesn’t have the power to hear it, as compared to dismissing it because the plaintiff has not jumped through the appropriate hoops, is an important one.

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2 thoughts on “Supreme Court clarifies basis for why copyright suits over unregistered works should be dismissed

  1. Joe

    Well, wouldn’t some of these litigants, based on their arguments, be questioning the authority of our governing body to make rules regarding copyright cases?

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