March 02, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick

On March 2, the Supreme Court decided Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, No. 08-103, holding that the copyright-registration requirement of 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) is not a precondition to federal court jurisdiction over a copyright infringement claim.

Section 411(a) provides, in relevant part and with some exceptions, that an action for infringement of a copyright may not be filed until the work has been registered with the Copyright Office. Reed Elsevier involved the negotiated settlement of a class action by freelance authors of newspaper and magazine articles who claimed infringement of their copyrights by publishers of electronic databases and publications. The proposed class included owners of both registered and unregistered works. The district court approved the settlement, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit questioned, for the first time in the litigation, whether § 411(a) deprived the federal courts of subject-matter jurisdiction over infringement claims involving unregistered works. The court of appeals ultimately held that no jurisdiction existed either to certify a class arising from the infringement of such works or to approve a settlement with respect to those claims.

The Supreme Court reversed. It stressed that the term "jurisdictional" properly applies only to "prescriptions delineating the classes of cases (subject-matter jurisdiction) and the persons (personal jurisdiction) implicating that authority," and noted that courts have often mischaracterized "claim-processing rules" or elements of a cause of action as jurisdictional limitations. Properly understood, a statutory requirement limits the jurisdiction of a federal court only if Congress clearly states that it does so. The Court held that no such statement is found in the specific language of § 411(a). The Court also noted that the registration requirement is located in a provision "separate" from those granting federal courts subject-matter jurisdiction, such as 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1338, and it observed that it would be "unusual" to ascribe jurisdictional significance to a registration requirement subject to several exceptions, such as those found in § 411(a) itself. The Court noted a number of other recent cases in which it had treated as nonjurisdictional other threshold requirements that claimants must complete or exhaust before filing a lawsuit.

The Court stressed, however, that its decision did not address whether § 411(a)'s registration requirement is "a mandatory precondition to suit that . . . district courts may or should enforce sua sponte by dismissing copyright infringement claims involving unregistered works."

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito joined. Justice Ginsburg filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Justices Stevens and Breyer joined. Justice Sotomayor took no part in the consideration or deliberation of the case.

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