Sunday, January 24, 2010

Unregistered Foreign Copyrights in US Courts: No Statutory Damages and Attorneys Fees

In Elsevier B.V. v. United Healthgroup, Inc., S.D.N.Y. January 14,2010, Judge William Pauley considered a plaintiff's claim that a provision of the Copyright Act requiring copyrights to be registered prior to an infringement violated the Berne Convention and thus was "preempted" by the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiff commenced a declaratory judgment action that Section 412 of the Copyright Act violated Article IV of the U.S. Constitution because Section 412 conflicted with Article 5 of  the Berne Convention.

The problem comes up in the following context:  many foreign publishers of copyrighted materials do not register their copyrights in the United States, even if they publish or sell copyrighted works in the United States.   So when their works are infringed, they do not enjoy the protections of the sections of the Copyright Act that give statutory damages and attorneys fees to persons who have timely registered their works (Sections 504 and 505).

Elsevier provides access to a database on which many of the unregistered copyrighted works can be accessed.  Elsevier alleged that the defendant permitted others to access the database in violation of a subscriber agreement.

The provision challenged was Section 412 of the Copyright Act, which provides:

§ 412. Registration as prerequisite to certain remedies for infringement12

In any action under this title, other than an action brought for a violation of the rights of the author under section 106A(a), an action for infringement of the copyright of a work that has been preregistered under section 408(f) before the commencement of the infringement and that has an effective date of registration not later than the earlier of 3 months after the first publication of the work or 1 month after the copyright owner has learned of the infringement, or an action instituted under section 411(c), no award of statutory damages or of attorney’s fees, as provided by sections 504 and 505, shall be made for —

(1) any infringement of copyright in an unpublished work commenced before the effective date of its registration; or

(2) any infringement of copyright commenced after first publication of the work and before the effective date of its registration, unless such registration is made within three months after the first publication of the work.

Find Section 412 and the rest of the Copyright Act here.

The doctrine of "preemption" is used in a number of different ways in copyright practice, but here the Plaintiff was arguing that the doctrine of preemption provides that where the Exective Branch has validly committed the U.S. under treaty powers and Congress has ratified such commitments, any inconsistent laws are "preempted" by the treaty.

The Plaintiff pointed to  Article Five of the Berne Convention which states:  “the enjoyment and the exercise of [rights under the Convention] shall not be subject to any formality.”   Find the full text of the Berne Convention here.

The District Court analyzed whether the Berne Convention was "self-executing" and found that it was not.  In other words, for any provisions of the Berne Convention to be binding, enabling legislation has to be adopted by Congress.  The Court looked at the legislation implementing the Berne Convention and noted that Congress decided not to change Section 412.

Noting that no federal appellate court has ruled on the question of whether the Berne Convention is self-executing, but that other courts in the district found it not to be self-executing, the Court found that it cannot serve as a basis for a preemption claim under Article IV of the US Constitution.

Since the District Court found the Berne Convention not to be self-executing, it found that Article 5 could not serve as the basis for a preemption.    The question of whether Article 5 and Section 412 conflict were not reached, leaving the question in the hands of diplomats.

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