Oral arguments on Jan. 8 in the Supreme Court focused on resolving a difference in how circuit courts interpret one aspect of copyright law, and this could affect some California businesses. The disagreement hinges on what qualifies as “registration”. Some courts have used what is called the “application approach”. In this approach, a work would be considered registered once the owner of the copyright submitted all necessary materials to the U.S. Copyright Office. Courts using the “registration approach” argued that registration had not taken place until a decision was made by the USCO.

The specific case under consideration had been dismissed by a Florida court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit had affirmed this on the grounds that the plaintiff had applied but not yet received approval from the USCO before suing Wall-Street.com. The plaintiff’s argument was that it was the copyright holder who made the registration while Wall-Street.com argued that it was the USCO.

The justices did not give a clear indication of which argument they found most persuasive. Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that neither definition appeared to be consistently applied in the Copyright Act. The plaintiff argued that the registration approach could leave copyright holders at risk since artistic works can be distributed so quickly and easily online.

Business litigation can become particularly complex when it is an issue on which circuit courts have disagreed or one in which no precedent has been set. This could include not just disputes over copyright law and other types of intellectual property but over commercial issues including partner or shareholder disputes, disputes with former employees and various types of contract litigation. This is why having the assistance of an attorney experienced in these types of complex matters can be advisable.