Although copyright protection for US works is automatic, registering a copyright provides several benefits to copyright owners, including the ability to file a lawsuit for infringement. However, courts have split regarding whether the Copyright Act allows a copyright owner to file a lawsuit as soon as she has submitted all the materials required for a registration application, or whether she can only file suit after the Copyright Office has acted on the application by either issuing a certificate or rejecting the application. The difference may be significant, given that it currently takes an average of six months for the Copyright Office to process applications.
Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation, an online news producer, licensed some of its articles to Wall-Street.com, a news website. The license agreement required Wall-Street.com to remove any Fourth Estate produced articles once the license expired, but Wall-Street.com declined to do so. Fourth Estate brought a copyright infringement claim against Wall-Street.com, but Wall-Street moved to dismiss the claims on the grounds that Fourth Estate could not sue until after the Copyright Office acted on its copyright registration application. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted Wall-Street.com’s motion to dismiss, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. In October 2017, Fourth Estate filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States. Cert was granted and the Court heard oral arguments January 8, 2019.
The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that registration occurs, and a copyright claimant may commence an infringement suit, only after the Copyright Office registers a copyright or refuses registration.