Just before the summer recess, the Supreme Court snuck in a certiorari grant that I don't think has received much attention in proportion to its importance--Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC. The issue is seemingly simple: before filing a lawsuit, a copyright owner must register the copyright. But what does it mean to register the copyright? Simply file the application, or actually receive the registration certificate.
I'd say this question is one of the most practically important IP questions the Court has faced in the last decade. When I was in active practice, I would estimate that a quarter to a third of our clients did not have a registration at the time they wanted to sue, and we relied on the Ninth Circuit's permissive "application is enough" rule to get a case filed (and sometimes seek injunctive relief). The alternative was to file and wait, sometimes months or even more than a year, to get a registration. (I've read that pendency is now about six to eight months). Alternatively, one can pay $800 for an expedited registration within 10 days.
Why might someone not file a registration well in advance of suing? First, because they don't have to. The post-Berne Convention adoption amendments from 1989 allow copyright to vest from the time of fixation. Indeed, in order to maintain compliance with Berne, the pre-filing registration requirement only applies to U.S. Works. Foreign works may sue at will--more on this later.
More practically, there are plenty of reasons why one might not file. In an era of mass digital photography, it would be ridiculously expensive to register every work in case one was infringed; it is far more efficient to see if anyone infringes, and then register that work. In software, new versions are created all the time--almost literally so in software as a service platforms. It would be impossible to file a new derivative work registration for every single released version, especially for open source (though I bet Microsoft does it).
As a result, the registration requirement would become a hammer that would keep rightful owners from bringing suit. The Supreme Court even recognized this several years ago in Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick. In that case, a class of journalists filed suit for transfer of their print works into electronic databases. Some putative class members objected to a settlement, but they had not registered. The Court ruled that registration was not jurisdictional. Does this mean that one can apply and sue, so long as registration occurs before any final determination?
I won't run through the pro and con arguments in detail, as arguments can be made on each side from different interpretive points of view. The statute clearly states that registration is required. But another section states that registration is effective from the date of application. But another part states that one may sue if the registration has been denied, which implies that registration is not complete until accepted. But then one wonders how long an applicant must wait until there is an assumption that the work has been "pocket denied," especially when registration is a ministerial act. But then the copyright office might argue that registration is not a ministerial act. And so forth. But the outcome of the arguments will have a real effect on real people and businesses.
I'd like to end with the challenge not made in the case: equal protection. While a couple commentators here and there have mentioned this problem with the dual registration rules, I can find no case with "411(a) & 'equal protection'" as search terms. Requiring a separate hurdle for some works and not others is about as unequal as I can think of. It is unclear why SAP can file suit immediately, but Oracle may not. I don't know if the Supreme Court can reach this issue as part of its interpretive determination (it's not an issue and it wasn't briefed), but I hope it does.