Supreme Court Rejects Time Limit on Copyright Infringement Damages

The U.S. Copyright Act provides a three-year statute of limitations for infringement claims. In other words, a copyright owner must bring their claim within three years after it “accrues.” Many federal courts have applied a concept called the discovery rule to this statute of limitations. They allow a copyright owner to bring a claim up to three years after they find out about the infringement.

A case arising from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which applies the discovery rule, recently raised a different timing question. In 2018, a Miami music producer sued a subsidiary of Warner Music. He sought damages under the Copyright Act for infringements dating back to ten years earlier. The music company did not argue that the statute of limitations blocked his lawsuit entirely. Instead, it argued that he could get damages only for infringements within the last three years.

The Eleventh Circuit ruled in favor of the producer on this issue. This clashed with a decision by the Second Circuit, leading the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. Last week, the Supreme Court adopted the approach of the Eleventh Circuit. Justice Elena Kagan wrote for a six-Justice majority in finding that a copyright owner may recover damages for any claim that is timely under the statute of limitations. Kagan noted that the text of the Copyright Act contains no specific time limit for damages. She also pointed out that applying a damages bar essentially negates the discovery rule. It would implicitly make the three-year statute of limitations run from when the infringement occurred. (Establishing liability for past infringement does little for a copyright owner if they cannot recover damages for it.)

The Supreme Court noted that it did not address the issue of whether the discovery rule should apply to the general statute of limitations. The music company had not raised this issue in the lower courts, so the court lacked the authority to raise it on its own. If parties in a future infringement case dispute this issue, the Supreme Court can address it at that stage.

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