Supreme Court: Copyright Registration Not A Jurisdictional Prerequisite to Filing Suit

Originally published on April 11, 2010 on

One of the weapons in a copyright defendant’s arsenal has been the Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, a weapon that could be deployed against a plaintiff who failed to file an application for (or obtain, depending on the circuit) a copyright registration prior to filing suit.  On March 2, 2010, the Supreme Court decided, however, in Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick that the registration requirement of 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) is not jurisdictional in nature but is, rather, more akin to a “claims-processing rule.”

Though the Court declined to address the question of whether § 411(a) contains the sort of precondition that district courts “may or should enforce sua sponte by dismissing the copyright infringement claims involving unregistered works,” 130 S.Ct. at 1249, it did explicitly recognize that § 411(a) is nonetheless a “prerequisite to suit.”  130 S.Ct. at 1247.  While the Court’s decision is valuable from a statutory construction and theoretical standpoint (the case has been nicely briefed by the Cornell Legal Information Institute), it shouldn’t have a significant practical impact on defending newly filed copyright claims involving unregistered works.  Though such cases cannot be dismissed for jurisdictional reasons, because registration is a precondition to maintaining suit it, claims made on unregistered works would likely be amenable to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6).