By James R. “Sonny” Chastain, Jr.

On March 4, 2019 the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC  clearing up that registration is a jurisdictional prerequisite to filing a copyright action.  In the opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court concluded that a copyright claimant may commence an infringement suit after the Copyright Office registers a copyright, not when a copyright owner merely submits the application, materials, and registration fee to the Copyright Office.  In the action, the parties agreed that 17 U.S.C. 411(a) bars a copyright owner from suing for infringement until “registration … has been made.” However, Fourth Estate argued that “registration …has been made” when a copyright owner submits the application, materials, and fee required for registration.  The Supreme Court rejected Fourth Estate’s application approach stating the specific context of section 411 permits only one reading, namely that the phrase “registration … has been made” refers to the Copyright Office’s act of granting registration, not to the copyright claimant’s mere request for registration.  Pursuant to section 408(a), an owner’s rights exist apart from registration; however, except in very limited circumstances, an owner must exhaust the administrative requirement of registration before filing suit to enforce any such ownership rights.