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The Damage Is Done: Supreme Court Rules on Copyright Statute of Limitations

by | Jun 11, 2024 | Copyrights, Intellectual Property

We know that one rule of intellectual property is that the onus is on the copyright owner to enforce their copyright. This means that they must put effort into finding copyright infringers in order to pursue claims and protect their property. 

However, you may be wondering how someone could possibly keep abreast of all the content out there. After all, there is just so much for the reader to review – especially since the advent of the internet and streaming services. It could take years of digging – or years of information making its way through the grapevine – for a copyright owner to realize that their copyright has been violated. 

As we will see in this week’s story, which originates in a case brought by a musician against a music publishing company, this can lead to complex questions of how to pursue copyright infringement. The Supreme Court recently settled some of these questions.

Warner Chappell Music v. Nealy

This case arose within a set of circumstances that demonstrates how a copyright owner might not learn of infringement for years. Nealy and a colleague formed the company Music Specialist, Inc., in the 1980s. Under it, they released one album and some singles before dissolving the company.

Nealy would go on to spend some extended stints in prison after his time with Music Specialist. For this reason, he did not become aware of Warner Chappell’s sampling of some of Music Specialist’s work, including a sample in Flo Rida’s hit “In the Ayer” in 2008. Nealy discovered this after getting out of prison in 2016, and he pursed an infringement claim in 2018 – a decade after the alleged infringement, but well within three years of discovery.

So, which timeline actually matters? 

The Copyright Act Statute of Limitations

The Copyright Act stipulates a three-year statute of limitations for copyright infringement claims. Its exact phrasing is: “within three years after the claim accrued.” 

Over time, questions have arisen regarding this time limit. When does the timer start? From the date of infringement or the date of discovery?

The Supreme Court actually did not directly confront this question. Instead, they “assumed without deciding” in their ruling, which legally indicates that the current case did not give the proper context to make a broader decision on the general copyright infringement statute of limitations. 

This is because Warner Chappell accepted Nealy’s assertion that his claim was timely since he filed it within three years of discovering the infringement. In other words, even though the infringing sampling took place in 2008, he filed the claim in 2018 – two years after he discovered it in 2016. 

Thus, the facts of the case did not compel the Supreme Court to weigh in on when exactly copyright infringement claims must be filed. Rather, the court was asked to address Warner Chappell’s challenge of Nealy’s request for damages from the date of infringement. The music publisher argued that they only owed Nealy damages from the last three years according to the statute of limitations.

In a win for Nealy, the Supreme Court ruled that damages were not contained by the statute of limitations. He was entitled to pursue all valid damages from the occurrence of infringement to the present.

Repercussions for Creatives

This ruling places more power in the hands of creatives who are protecting their copyrights. Specifically, it strengthens the resolve of a statute of limitations based on discovery rather than the instance of infringement, though this is not precedential. This could put creatives scanning the internet in a fairer position to take meaningful action when they finally do find infringement – no matter how long ago it took place.

More importantly, the court has ruled with resolve that the pivotal reward of filing a claim – being able to collect damages – can cover the entire time of the infringement, though the actual damages awarded will depend on the details of the case. Still, this gives creatives a stronger ability to protect their copyrights in the long run, which is even more reason to properly register your copyright in the first place.


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