Article Updated: See Below
It is well-known that, if you are a U.S. citizen and wish to sue for copyright infringement in a U.S. court, you have to first register your works with the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO). If you wish to collect statutory damages, you need to register either before the infringement or within three months of publication.
However, for a time it was very murky whether this element also applies to foreign authors who wish to sue within the U.S. This is because, in 1989, the U.S. became a signatory to the Berne Convention, over 100 years after the first countries signed on, which states, under article five, that “the enjoyment and the exercise of [rights under the Convention] shall not be subject to any formality.”
The theory was that. while the U.S. could do what they wanted to their own citizens, including subjecting them to the 9-month delay for a registration certificate, but they were bound by the Berne Convention to grant full rights to foreign copyright holders.
However, a decision by a U.S. District Court paints a very different picture, saying that the Berne Convention does not preempt U.S. copyright laws and that the treaty is not self-executing. This essentially means that all copyright holders, regardless of where they are located, need to register their works with the USCO before filing suit in the country if they wish to seek statutory damages.
Needless to say, considering that most nations have no formalities at all for copyright protection, this decision is going to cause some major headache for foreign copyright holders as they try to enforce their rights within the U.S.
The case in question is Elsevier B.V. et al v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc.. Elsevier holds copyright in a collection of science books that they make available through their paid database ScienceDirect and they claim that at least one of the defendants, Ingenix, allowed others to access that database unlawfully.
However, many of the works in Elsevier’s portfolio are foreign and lack copyright registration. Elsevier sought statutory damages for those works, claiming that the Berne Convention should allow them to do as such. The judge, however, ruled that the Berne Convention is not self executing, primarily because the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 said so explicitly.
The result is that, even though the U.S. is a signatory to a treaty that forbids formalities in the “enjoyment and the exercise” of copyright, foreign content creators still have to register their works with the USCO to collect all the potential damages and, most likely, to sue at all.
The long and short of this is that, if you are a foreign copyright holder and think you might ever want to sue in the United States for infringement, you should register your works with the USCO and keep those registrations up to date.
Failure to do so could result in you being unable to claim all the damages you would otherwise be entitled to.
To be clear though, lack of registration does not prohibit you from filing DMCA takedown notices nor does it prevent you from sending cease and desist letters, this only restricts your rights when you go to file a lawsuit. Also, you may still be able to sue and collect significant damages for the removal of copyright management information if it is an element of the case.
Still, the point remains that, regardless of where you are located, if you are considering filing a lawsuit in the U.S. at any point, it’s probably worth your while to register your work with the USCO.
The decision is legally sound, of that there is no dispute. However, it is fascinating when looked at in the broader context of global politics and intellectual property.
The U.S. is one of the first nations to criticize other countries when we feel their copyright laws are lacking. We even have a “Copyright Watch List” of nations we feel are encouraging piracy through either lackadaisical laws or enforcement.
However, this ruling clearly illustrates just how dated and out of touch our own laws are in many ways. Though we are a signatory to a treaty that bars formalities in copyright enforcement, we require copyright holders to register with the USCO to enjoy the full protection allowed under law.
To make matters even worse, the USCO is a notorious mess. This includes delays 9 months and longer for receiving certificates, even after the use of the electronic registration system. Subjecting U.S. citizens to this is already inexcusable, but to force its use internationally is simply mind-blowing.
Sadly, even as we negotiate treaties that seek to push various elements of the U.S. law on other nations, we are not making any push to change our own laws and harmonize them with the rest of the world. The USCO copyright registration system is a dinosaur in many ways and should be done away with.
Especially since we signed a treaty almost 25 years ago that said we would do away with formalities.
In the end, the result of this is pretty clear, if you are a copyright holder not in the U.S. but may want to sue for copyright infringement in a U.S. court, you need to register your works and keep those registrations up to date if you want all of the damages to be at your disposal.
It is a huge pain and a hassle that most copyright holders outside of the U.S. will be uncomfortable and unfamiliar with, but it is a fact of life at this time.
Hopefully we will begin to see some changes in the law that will make this unnecessary but, in the meantime, it is a reality that we all most adapt to and live with.
Commenter Terry Hart pointed out that there was a previous case on this issue, in the same court, that slipped under my radar and answered this question previously. He also clarified that the issue of registration only affects the ability of the foreign copyright holder to collect statutory damages, not file suit, an element I was admittedly unclear on. I’ve updated the article to reflect these changes.