The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently ruled that registration of a collective work can operate to register both the collective work and, independently, the individual component works within the collective work. Alaska Stock LLC v. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publ’g Co., 747 F.3d 673 (9th Cir. 2014). The underlying dispute was a copyright infringement claim by stock photography company Alaska Stock against a licensee, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., alleging that Houghton had exceeded the scope of its license to Alaska Stock’s images.

The district court dismissed Alaska Stock’s infringement claim on the basis that Alaska Stock’s registrations for the individual photographs asserted in the infringement claim were deficient. A party must register a work with the Copyright Office before suing for infringement of such work, so the district court concluded that there could be no infringement claim regarding the unregistered individual photographs.

The Copyright Act requires, in part, that copyright registration applications include the name of the author and title of the work. Alaska Stock’s applications were for collective works (i.e., the image databases) comprising several individual photographs. Each application included the title for the image database, the names of three authors of the individual photographs, and the number of the remaining non-named authors of the individual photographs.

The issue to be decided was whether Alaska Stock’s applications were sufficient to register the individual photographs. The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the district court and found that the manner by which Alaska Stock identified the title of the collective work and authors of the collective and component works was effective to register both the collective work (i.e., the image database) and the component works (i.e., the individual photographs). Provided that the registrant owns both the collective work and the component works, the registration of a collective work can operate to register both the collective work and, independently, the individual component works. In this case, Alaska Stock was the owner of both the image databases and the individual photographs therein.

An important factor in this decision was that Alaska Stock had submitted its applications in accordance with guidelines that the Copyright Office had provided for the registration of image libraries. The Copyright Office had previously stated that, so long as the registrant owned both the catalog and the individual photos, identifying (i) three distinct authors of the individual photographs and (ii) the number of other authors responsible for the remaining works in the catalog, this would satisfy the author identification requirements, and that it would register the image catalog and the underlying photographs themselves. The Ninth Circuit cited precedent specifying that it would defer to the Copyright Office’s interpretations of the Copyright Act if such interpretations are appropriate and have the power to persuade.

In this case, the Ninth Circuit gave due regard to the guidelines from the Copyright Office, stating that redefining such guidelines would be unfair to copyright owners who rely on the administrative practices at the Copyright Office.