Copyright owners are the winners of the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest copyright ruling in Warner Chappell Music, Inc. v. Nealy. Issued May 9, 2024, the Nealy ruling preserves legal benefits for copyright owners who fail to file suit within the traditional three-year statute of limitations because they were originally unaware of the infringement.

As provided by federal law, copyright protects original works of authorship, including, but not limited to: written works such as books, articles, research papers, and website content; visual art such as paintings and photographs; musical compositions and sound recordings; and dramatic works such as films and plays.

If you believe that your work has been infringed, there is normally a three-year statute of limitations to file a copyright claim in court. But what if you, as the copyright owner, don’t find out about the infringement until many years after the fact? Traditionally, under what is known as the “discovery rule,” the district courts have permitted a late-filed claim to proceed so long as the plaintiff filed suit within three years of personally discovering the infringement. However, the courts were split on whether the plaintiff could recover all damages dating to the start of the infringement, or only damages arising within the past three years.

In a concise majority opinion authored by Justice Elena Kagan, the Court resolved the split—holding that so long as the claim is timely under the discovery rule, the plaintiff is eligible to recover all provable damages without any time restriction. You can read the full ruling here.

The decision does not create a free-for-all for copyright owners to file suit without any time urgency. The general rule still is that a copyright owner must file an infringement claim in federal court within three years of the infringement starting. If the claim is filed more than three years later due to delayed knowledge, the plaintiff has the burden to prove the length of and reasons for the delay. A plaintiff also may not turn a blind eye to infringement in hopes of extending the statute of limitations—the time clock starts to run once the plaintiff knew or should have known about the infringement.

Although the Nealy decision gives more leeway for delayed knowledge of infringement, copyright owners should still remain vigilant in detecting infringement and enforcing their rights. An earlier-filed claim is better in terms of stopping the infringement sooner and mitigating the damage to your rights and reputation as an author.

In order to be prepared to enforce your copyright, you also should register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office as soon as possible. You cannot file a copyright suit in federal court without one. What’s more—if you fail to register the copyright before a particular infringement occurs, you lose the right to recover statutory damages and attorneys’ fees related to the infringement (unless the copyright was registered within three months after your work was published).

I help authors/artists register their works and enforce their copyrights in federal court. I also defend alleged copyright infringers, if you have received a cease-and-desist or have been sued in federal court. Contact my office if you need assistance in any of these areas, and check back here for more IP updates.