In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States held that although the Copyright Act’s registration requirement, 17 U.S.C. § 411(a), is a precondition to filing a copyright infringement claim, a copyright holder’s failure to comply with that requirement does not restrict a federal court’s subject-matter jurisdiction over infringement claims involving unregistered works. Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, Case No. 08-103. (Supr. Ct., Mar. 2, 2010) (Thomas, Justice).
This case matured from multiple class action lawsuits filed by freelance authors alleging copyright infringement based on electronic publication of their works when the works had only been licensed to be published in print form. After the Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in New York Times Co. v. Tasini, the class actions were consolidated and referred to mediation.
The parties reached a settlement allowing payment to all authors, including authors whose works had not been registered with the Copyright Office, in exchange for permission to publish the works electronically. Under the settlement, authors with registered works were given priority in payment and higher compensation, whereas authors of unregistered works received less compensation, which could be reduced to nothing depending on the availability of funds. After the court approved the settlement and certified the class, objecting class members (authors of unregistered works) appealed.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit invalidated the settlement, finding that under § 411(a) the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the claims concerning unregistered works and that every member of the class must meet the jurisdictional requirement of § 411(a) for the district court to possess subject matter jurisdiction over the case. Second Circuit further found that subject matter jurisdiction could not be cured by supplemental jurisdiction. Accordingly, the Second Circuit vacated and remanded the settlement. A dissent argued that the district court did possess subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that § 411(a) was merely a “claim processing” requirement and not a jurisdictional one.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari, limited to the jurisdictional issue, and reversed. The Supreme Court held that the registration requirement of § 411(a) did not prevent a federal district court from entering an order affecting unregistered copyrights. The Supreme Court explained:
“Subject to certain exceptions, the Copyright Act (Act) requires copyright holders to register their works before suing for copyright infringement. In this case, the Court of Appeals . . . held that a copyright holder's failure to comply with § 411(a)’s registration requirement deprives a federal court of jurisdiction to adjudicate his copyright infringement claim. We disagree. Section 411(a)’s registration requirement is a precondition to filing a claim that does not restrict a federal court’s subject-matter jurisdiction.”
Citing Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp. (2006), the Supreme Court explained that a statutory requirement is only jurisdictional if Congress “clearly states that [it] count[s] as jurisdictional” and that a condition “not rank[ed]” as such should be treated “as nonjurisdictional in character.” After noting that §411(a) does not “clearly state” that its registration requirement is jurisdictional, the Court analyzed the statutory language of the Copyright Act and its legislative history, finding that both weighed against finding the requirement jurisdictional. The Supreme Court further noted that the registration requirement is located in a provision separate from the jurisdictional provisions and concluded that finding §411(a) to be a jurisdictional requirement would be inconsistent with the Act’s provisions explicitly permitting claims involving unregistered works in certain circumstances