Blawgletter long thought that you had to jump through a Copyright Office hoop before you could sue someone for using a copy of your “works” – cartoons you drew, paintings you painted, etchings you etched, and stuff you wrote. You had to get the CO to "register" your at-least-a-little-bit-original and in-a-tangible-medium output.
We knew that the Copyright Act section that called for registration held the awesome power of barring federal courts from hearing infringement claims. We believed that section 411(a) did its magic by making the act of registering a barrier to federal court jurisdiction – the authority to rule on the merits of a claim.
Until today. The U.S. Supreme Court wised us up. It held, 5-0-3, that section 411(a) erects not a jurisdictional barrier but a “claim-processing” one. Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, No. 08-103 (U.S. Mar. 2, 2010).
The difference mattered because the case involved a class action settlement of infringement claims. The class included authors who hadn’t satisfied section 411(a). If the registration requirement restricted jurisdiction, the district court might have lacked power to okay the deal as to the non-registering class members.
The Court declined to say what effect a jurisdictional problem would have had on the settlement or whether registration counts as a “mandatory precondition to suit that . . . district court may or should enforce sua sponte by dismissing copyright infringement claims involving unregistered works.” It remanded the case “for proceedings consistent with this opinion.” Id. at 16.
Justice Ginsburg concurred in part and in the judgment, and Justices Breyer and Stevens agreed with her.