Supreme Court Rules On Copyright Registration: What Does It Mean?

By Dave Rein

I previously wrote that I was hoping the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Reed Elsevier Inc. v. Muchnick would finally answer the question of whether copyright registration is necessary for courts to have subject matter jurisdiction. We now have a ruling – it is not jurisdictional -- but the impact of the decision is somewhat unclear.  Certainly, some will cheer (can anyone say Google?) the decision, but for the vast majority of copyright cases, will the decision matter? Maybe, but probably not.

The courts have been split as to whether to dismiss copyright cases for the lack of subject matter jurisdiction if the plaintiff has not registered its copyrighted works. The Supreme Court ruled that registration is not jurisdictional because Section 411(a) did not “clearly state” that it is jurisdictional. 

Instead of jurisdictional, registration is a precondition to filing a lawsuit or similar to a “claim-processing rule.” In other words, a plaintiff needs to comply with the requirements of the statute to proceed, but the failure to do so does not deny the court subject matter jurisdiction. 

Presumably, if the plaintiff sues for a work that is not yet registered, a defendant will now bring a motion to dismiss the claim for the failure to state a claim. If you are in a jurisdiction that previously dismissed cases for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, a court may likely still dismiss the case although the reason for dismissal will change to “failure to state a claim.” Only the label or rationale change. Likewise, if you are in a jurisdiction that took a different approach to registration, the court will likely continue to apply that approach.

The instances of where it does matter are probably few and far between. The background of the Reed Elsevier case illustrates at least one category of cases, i.e. settlements of certain class actions, that will feel the impact of this case. 

In Reed Elsevier, a group of publishers who wanted to publish certain works digitally reached a settlement with almost all of the members of a class of freelance authors – some of whose works were registered and some whose were not. When the district court approved the settlement, some freelance authors objected and appealed. The Second Circuit held that the district court did not have authority to approve the settlement because some of the works were not registered. The Supreme Court reversed and in effect, allowed the district court to approve the settlement even though some class members never registered their copyrights.

Sounds pretty narrow. Who else would care? The thousand-pound gorilla of copyright – Google. If the Supreme Court had said that a court cannot approve a settlement of copyright claims whose class included unregistered works, how would have changed the proposed Google Books Search Settlement?  If the final settlement proposal does not include unregistered works (except foreign works), then perhaps not much.  But, does anyone think that the book search is the last expansive project Google will take on?  I doubt it.

 

Federal Circuit Says Korean War Memorial Stamp Violated Sculptor's Copyright

By Dave Rein

Sometimes a 37¢ stamp does buy quite a bit.  One lucky sculptor, Frank Gaylord, may find that such a stamp could give him some extra spending money in the neighborhood of six or seven figures.

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently reversed the lower court and ruled that the U.S. Postal Service violated Mr. Gaylord's copyright when it issued a stamp based upon a photograph of a sculpture called "The Column".  The Column is composed of 19 statutes representing a platoon of soldiers such as the one on the left and is part of the Korean War  Memorial.  

Years after the memorial was opened, the Postal Service decided to use a photograph of the Column that John Alli shot early in the morning after a snowstorm.  It paid Mr. Alli $1,500 to use the photograph.  

To show how difficult it can sometimes be to determine who owns a copyright, Mr. Alli believed he had authority to commercially exploit his photograph because he entered into a license agreement with an entity that said that it held the copyright in The Column.  Only later did Mr. Alli learn that Mr. Gaylord actually held the copyright.

While it may have been difficult for Mr. Alli to determine who owned the copyright in The Column, the government was certainly aware of Mr. Gaylord as it worked with him on certain aspects of The Column (the degree of which was disputed).  Surprisingly, it never required Mr. Gaylord to either share his copyrights or provide it with a license to use The Column. 

Mr. Gaylord sued the Postal Service claiming that he was owed a 10% royalty on the sales of $17 million worth of postage stamps plus other merchandise that featured images of the stamp.  

The parties agreed that Mr. Alli was entitled to his own copyright protection in his photograph as a derivative work. Although the parties stipulated that the photograph was a derivative work, as I noted elsewhere, this is still an open question.

There were multiple issues before the Federal Circuit, but the main one was whether or not the  stamp's depiction of The Column was fair use under 17 U.S.C. § 107.  It was not only the crux of the parties' argument, but also one of the first times that the Federal Circuit weighed in on fair use.

Typically, fair use is "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching . . . scholarship, or research", but it also applies more generally to uses that fall within the four statutory factors.  The Federal Circuit agreed that the stamp did not effect the potential market or value of The Column, but it found that the other three factors weighed against the government.

The parties' argument about the first factor, i.e. the purpose and character of the infringing use, centered on whether or not the stamp was "transformative" of the original sculpture.  Mr. Gaylord argued that the stamp could not be transformative because the stamp and The Column both have the same purpose of honoring the veterans of the Korean War.  The court agreed and rejected the government's argument that the addition of snow and muted colors enhanced the sculpture's surreal character because they do not change the  "character, meaning or message" expressed in the sculpture.   As the court said:  "Nature's decision to snow cannot deprive Mr. Gaylord of an otherwise valid right to exclude."  

The Court of Appeals also seemed troubled that the stamp did not comment upon the original work nor was it part of a biography.   It will be interesting to see whether this case will be interpreted as narrowing the test for what constitutes a transformative use. 

Because the stamp was not a transformative use and was for a commercial purpose, the court held the first factor weighed against fair use. The second (the nature of the copyrighted work) and third (the amount and substantiality of the portion used) factors also weighed against fair use according to the Federal Circuit.  At least one commentator believes that the Federal Circuit's decision was right.  

Regardless of whether it is right or not, this case illustrates the importance of licensing.  The government decided it did not need a formal agreement that allowed it to use the sculpture.  I applaud public entities for making sure that they treat artists fairly, but they also need to make sure that they think through the repercussions of not obtaining some protection in the form of joint ownership in the copyrights or a perpetual license to use the copyrighted works upon terms that are fair for everyone.