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Mayer Brown's Supreme Court and Appellate Practice Group distributes a Docket Report whenever the Supreme Court grants certiorari in a case of interest to the business community. We also email the Docket Report to our subscribed members and if you don't already subscribe to the Docket Report and would like to, please click here.

October Term 2008 - March 2, 2009

The Supreme Court granted certiorari today in one case of interest to the business community:

  • Subject Matter Jurisdiction—Copyright Infringement

Subject Matter Jurisdiction—Copyright Infringement

A provision of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 411(a), states that “no action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until * * * registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.”  Today the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Reed Elvesier, Inc. v. Muchnick (No. 08-103) to decide whether that provision restricts federal courts’ subject-matter jurisdiction over copyright-infringement actions.

The plaintiffs in the case are mainly freelance writers who contracted with publishers to author works for publication in print media and retained the copyrights in those works.  The contracts did not grant the publishers the right to reproduce the works electronically or to license them for electronic reproduction by others.  But the publishers did so anyway.  The plaintiffs filed a class action in the Southern District of New York, alleging that the electronic reproduction infringed the plaintiffs’ copyrights.  After the parties agreed to settle the case, the district court certified a class and approved the settlement.  Most of the claims within the certified class arose from the infringement of unregistered copyrights.

Objectors to the settlement appealed, and a divided panel of the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s order.  It held that, under 17 U.S.C. § 411(a), district courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction over copyright-infringement claims arising from unregistered copyrights, and that, because the class in this case included such claims, the district court lacked jurisdiction to certify the class and approve the settlement.  Judge Walker dissented, arguing that Section 411(a) is not a jurisdictional statute.

The defendants petitioned for certiorari.  They asked the Supreme Court to decide two questions, the first of which was whether “the usual power of lower courts to approve a comprehensive settlement releasing claims that would be outside the courts’ subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate * * * was eliminated in copyright infringement actions by 17 U.S.C. § 411(a).”  Pet. i.  The Court granted certiorari, but limited its grant to a question the Court formulated itself: whether Section 411(a) restricts federal courts’ subject-matter jurisdiction in the first place.  A negative answer to that question will facilitate settlements in copyright-infringement cases of this type.  The Court’s decision will therefore be important both to companies that publish original electronic content and to companies that operate databases that license content from publishers.

Absent extensions, which are likely, amicus briefs in support of the petitioners will be due on April 23, and amicus briefs in support of the respondents will be due on May 26.  Any questions about this case should be directed to Dan Himmelfarb (+1 202 263-3035) in our Washington, DC office.

Today, the Supreme Court also invited the Solicitor General to file a brief expressing the views of the United States in three other cases of interest to the business community:

Frommert v. Conkright, No. 08-803, Conkright v. Frommert, No. 08-810, and Pietrowski v. Conkright, No. 08-826. The petitions in these related cases, all of which seek review of the same lower-court decision, collectively raise several questions relating to the standards for interpreting the terms of a plan and for finding a knowing and voluntary waiver of a claim under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq., more commonly known as ERISA.

The general editor of the Docket Report is Andrew Tauber in our Washington, DC office, who can be reached at atauber@mayerbrown.com or +1 202 263 3324.

Mayer Brown Supreme Court Docket Reports provide information and comments on legal issues and developments of interest to our clients and friends. They are not a comprehensive treatment of the subject matter covered and are not intended to provide legal advice. Readers should seek specific legal advice before taking any action with respect to the matters discussed.

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