Does Registration Mean Registration: When Can Copyright Holders Sue?

Background

Copyright law protects the exclusive rights of creators of works—like novels, songs, computer software, and even fictional characters. These rights include the distribution and reproduction of copyrighted works and the power to assign or transfer those rights. In the United States, the copyright symbol “©” may serve to provide notice to potential infringers that the creator’s work is protected. But the symbol does not mean that the federal government specifically granted it copyright protections. Copyrights do not need to be registered with the federal government to be protected. Original works are under copyright protection once created and “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” The owner of a copyright may register it at any time during (or before) the term of the copyright – usually 70 years after an individual creator’s death.

Issue

While registration is not required for copyright protection, it is required for filing a lawsuit to enforce a copyright. Before the enactment of the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright law varied from state to state and so did the conditions necessary for copyright enforcement. The act created a uniform system of copyright enforcement. Section 411 of the Copyright Act provides that “no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.” The statute prescribes steps in the registration process but does not define when “registration” has occurred to allow a copyright owner’s infringement suit. Courts are split on whether “registration” occurs upon submission of an application for registration (the “application approach”) or upon approval of the registration application (the “registration approach”).

The Split

In Cosmetic Ideas v. IAC (2010), the Ninth Circuit adopted the application approach, which relies more on the purpose of the statute than on a plain language interpretation of the text. In trying to interpret “registration” under § 411 of the Copyright Act, the Ninth Circuit started with the plain language of the statute and referred to § 101 of the Act which defines “registration” as “a registration of a claim in the original or the renewed and extended term of copyright.” The court concluded that the definition was “unhelpful” and provided no guidance in interpreting the meaning of “registration.” The court then examined the statute as a whole, finding ambiguity—it then concluded that the Act’s “plain language” unequivocally supported either interpretation, and that it must “go beyond . . . the plain language to determine which approach better carries out the purpose of the statute.” Ultimately, the court adopted the application approach, finding that its efficiency accomplished the central purpose of registration – a robust national register of existing copyrights.

On the other hand, in Fourth Estate Pub. v. Wall-Street.com (2017), the Eleventh Circuit adopted the registration approach. In Fourth Estate, the court based its reasoning primarily on the language of the Copyright Act. It reasoned that the text “makes clear” that the registration approach is correct. The Eleventh Circuit rejected appeals to the legislative history and the policy of the Act, finding that the Act’s words “are unambiguous” and no further inquiry is required.

Looking Forward

Despite the registration requirement’s prior treatment by circuit courts as jurisdictional, the US Supreme Court held in Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick (2010) that not fulfilling the registration requirement does not deprive a federal court of subject matter jurisdiction over a case. However, the Court in Reed Elsevier did not tackle the circuits’ different approaches to defining registration. A resolution may nonetheless be on its way thanks to the Fourth Estate case. A petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court filed in October 2017 is currently pending. The Court has invited the Solicitor General to file a brief expressing the views of the United States on the case. There is a good chance that the Supreme Court will grant certiorari given that the case involves statutory interpretation and there is a clear circuit split. Otherwise, an amendment to the statute may be needed to resolve the issue.

 

Bill of Rights protections for all — or maybe just for some: Are non-citizens protected?

Background

In contrast with the Fifth and Sixth Amendments’ use of the words “person” and “accused,” the First, Second and Fourth Amendments’ text protects certain rights of “the people.” The Fifth and Sixth Amendments prescribe certain rights of individuals in criminal proceedings, while the First, Second, and Fourth provide rights to the public at large. This distinction affects who is protected by these amendments.

Who are “the people” protected by the First, Second and Fourth Amendments? An obvious starting point would be citizens of the United States. But what about permanent resident aliens and refugees residing in the US? What about aliens living in the US without a legal immigration status? Those on a temporary stay visa? Or other classes that may attempt to claim the right? The Supreme Court purported to answer these questions in United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez (1990). It held that the use of “people” in the Fourth Amendment, as well as in the First and Second Amendments, refers to “a class of persons who are part of a national community or who have otherwise developed sufficient connection with [the United States] to be considered part of that community.” The problem then is determining who is part of this national community. Who is considered to have sufficient connection with the United States such that their rights are protected by the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments?

Issue

The Supreme Court has not further clarified who falls under the umbrella of “the people,” and whether the class of “people” is the same in the First, Second and Fourth Amendments. The Court, instead, has left it to lower courts to wrestle with what determines if an individual is part of the class for asserting a constitutional right.  As a result, a difficult question courts have grappled with is whether aliens unlawfully residing in the United States are part of “the people.” With over twelve million such aliens currently residing in the United States, there is a need for a definite answer on what constitutional protections they possess. The Supreme Court in Verdugo-Urquidez declined to decide this issue because “such a claim [was not] squarely before” it. The Court did, however, suggest that an alien who is in the United States voluntarily and has accepted “some societal obligations” may be considered part of “the people.”

The Split

There is a split between the Fifth and the Seventh Circuit on the issue in relation to the Second Amendment. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in United-States v. Portillo-Munoz (2011) held that an alien unlawfully residing in the United States is not a member of “the people” and therefore not given the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Armando Portillo-Munoz had acquired a gun to protect his employer’s chickens from coyotes.  He had been voluntarily present, although unlawfully, in the United States. He was working a steady job, paying rent for his home, and financially supporting his girlfriend and daughter. Yet, the court denied him protection under the Second Amendment and emphasized a distinction between aliens in the United States lawfully and those in the United States unlawfully, even those with substantial connections to the United States. The Eight Circuit in United States v. Flores (2011) and the Fourth Circuit in United States v. Carpio-Leon (2012) have taken the same approach.

The dissent in Portillo-Munoz worried about the implications of the majority’s holding not just for the Second Amendment, but for the First and Fourth Amendments as well. The dissent argued that:

There are countless persons throughout Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, who, like Portillo-Munoz, work for employers, pay rent to landlords, and support their loved ones, but are unlawfully residing in the United States. The majority’s reasoning renders them vulnerable — to governmental intrusions on their homes and persons, as well as interference with their rights to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances — with no recourse.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision came in United States v. Meza-Rodriguez (2015). Mariano Meza-Rodriguez was brought to the United States as a young child and had been residing unlawfully in the country since that time. The court held that an alien unlawfully residing in the United States had the Second Amendment right to bear arms. It emphasized Meza-Rodriguez’s plainly substantial connections to the United States having lived in the country for several years. Despite its holding on this issue, the court upheld a statute prohibiting aliens such as Meza-Rodriguez from possessing firearms and ammunitions because “the right to bear arms is not unlimited” and the ban on the possession of firearms by such aliens “is substantially related to the statute’s general objectives.” Ultimately, the Seventh Circuits disagreement with the Fifth Circuit was not essential to the holding of the case.

While there is not much consideration on the issue with regard to the First Amendment, several circuits have provided Fourth Amendment protections to aliens unlawfully residing in the United States and none have definitively denied the protection. The Fifth Circuit opined in Martinez-Aguero v. Gonzalez (2006) that “cases from [the Fifth Circuit] state unequivocally that aliens are entitled to Fourth Amendment protection.” More recently, during immigration proceedings against a putative alien, the Ninth Circuit stated that in such proceedings it allows for the “suppression of any evidence seized in connection with a Fourth Amendment violation that is egregious.” Armas-Barranzuela v. Holder (9th Cir. 2014). The First Circuit follows a similar approach. Garcia-Aguilar v. Lynch (1st Cir. 2015).

Looking Forward

It is difficult to say when there will be an end to the Supreme Court’s exercise in constitutional avoidance on the issue. In Hernandez v. Mesa (2017), the Court declined to address the related issue of whether a Mexican national shot at the border of the United States and Mexico could claim Fourth Amendment rights because “it is sensitive and may have consequences that are far reaching.” Something to keep an eye on is congressional action on immigration and the potential impact on the status of aliens unlawfully residing in the United States as part of “the people.” However, the legislative landscape is even more fraught with uncertainty than the judicial landscape.

Further Reading:

Mathilda McGee-Tubb, Sometimes You’re in, Sometimes You’re out: Undocumented Immigrants and the Fifth Circuit’s Definition of “The People” in United States v. Portillo-Muñoz, 53 B.C.L. Rev. E. Supp. 75 (2012), http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/bclr/vol53/iss6/7