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Court Decision Corrects Time Window For Copyright Damages Accrual

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In Warner Chappell Music, Inc. v. Nealy,[1] the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that allows plaintiffs to recover full damages for copyright infringement if discovery of the infringement occurred within three years of suit, regardless of when the infringement occurred. This decision corrects a contrary view by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that had resulted in a split of authority with the allowed damages period depending on the particular judicial circuit in which the infringement suit was filed. The Supreme Court resolved the circuit split in favor of the expanded potential scope of recoverable damages.

Sherman Nealy and Tony Butler established Music Specialist, Inc. (MSI) in the early 1980s. MSI released an album and several singles from 1983 to 1986 before dissolving as a corporation. After MSI dissolved and Nealy was incarcerated, Butler founded a new company and began licensing MSI’s musical works. Nealy, upon his release in 2008, discovered ongoing unauthorized use of MSI’s catalog but did not take immediate action. It was not until Nealy’s release from a second prison term in 2015, after being informed of ongoing litigation involving these works, that Nealy decided to pursue legal action. In December 2018, nearly three years after discovering the infringement, Nealy filed a lawsuit seeking money damages for infringement dating back to 2008.

The trial court faced the issue of deciding if a copyright plaintiff may recover damages for acts that allegedly occurred more than three years before the filing of a lawsuit, which brought into question the Copyright Act and the Discovery Rule. The Copyright Act of 1976 sets a three-year statute of limitations for filing infringement claims, as stated in 17 U.S.C. § 507(b). This limitation period begins from the date the infringement occurs, requiring copyright holders to file their claims within three years of the date of the infringement. On the other hand, the Discovery Rule dictates that a claim accrues or “starts the limitations period when the plaintiff discovers, or with due diligence should have discovered, the injury that forms the basis for the claims.”[1] The Discovery Rule acknowledges that some infringement may not be immediately apparent to the copyright owner and ensures that copyright holders are not unfairly barred from seeking redress for infringement that was concealed or difficult to detect.

Initially, the U.S. District Court limited Nealy’s recovery to damages accruing in the three years preceding his lawsuit, despite acknowledging the timeliness of his claims under the Discovery Rule. However, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, and the Supreme Court has now affirmed the appellate court’s decision. Associate Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, clarified that the Copyright Act’s plain text does not impose a separate limitation on damages once a claim is determined to be timely filed. This result ensures that copyright plaintiffs can seek full compensation for all infringement if discovery of infringement occurred within three years of suit, regardless of when the infringement occurred.

Previously, under the rule applied by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, plaintiffs were able to recover damages only for infringement occurring within three years of filing a lawsuit. This narrow window allowed infringers to avoid liability for any infringement that occurred earlier, effectively limiting an infringer’s financial exposure. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling eliminates the three-years-before-suit limitation, and in cases involving application of the Discovery Rule, once a plaintiff discovers an infringement, they can seek money damages for the entire duration of the infringement even if the infringement started well before the three-year statute of limitations otherwise applicable without the Discovery Rule.

For plaintiffs, this ruling allows claims for damages over a longer period of time. This incentivizes copyright holders to monitor their intellectual property vigilantly and act swiftly upon discovering unauthorized use. The ability to recover damages for an extended period of infringement means that plaintiffs can potentially claim significant compensation that reflects the entirety of the infringement.

For defendants, the decision increases the risk associated with infringing activities. They must now prepare to defend against claims that could cover a much longer period of infringement, potentially leading to greater financial liabilities. This heightened risk disincentivizes infringers from engaging in unauthorized use of copyrighted works, knowing that they can be held accountable for all infringement if discovered within the statutory period. It emphasizes the importance of thorough documentation and proactive legal strategies to mitigate potential liabilities.

The Warner Chappell decision corrects previous misinterpretations of the Copyright Act (e.g., by the Second Circuit) and restricts the Copyright Act’s 3-year statute of limitations to just that – a time in which suit must be filed – and not the window for damages. It should be noted that the basic issue of vitality or legitimacy of the Discovery Rule was not at issue in the case because it was not raised by the parties. Instead, the parties themselves and the courts deciding the case at every stage of the litigation, including the Supreme Court, simply assumed that the Discovery Rule was valid and applicable to suits for infringement under the Copyright Act. That issue may yet be decided in another case in the future. 



[1] Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 572 U.S. 663, 670 n.4 (2014).