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Supreme Court Agrees with Authors Guild on Strengthened Copyright Protections

U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Warner Chappell Music, Inc. v. Nealy is a significant victory for writers and other copyright holders. The court held that a copyright owner who files a timely claim for infringement is entitled to damages for the entire period of infringement, even if it began more than three years before the lawsuit. This decision strengthens the protections provided by copyright law and ensures that writers can effectively defend their livelihoods by recovering damages that better approximate the harm done by infringement. 

On January 12, 2024, the Authors Guild submitted an amicus curiae (or “friend of the court”) brief to the Supreme Court, urging the Court to uphold a lower court decision allowing copyright holders to recover damages for infringements that occurred more than three years before the lawsuit was filed. The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, the Graphic Artists Guild, Romance Writers of America, the Songwriters Guild of America, and the Textbook & Academic Authors Association joined the Authors Guild in the brief.  

The copyright law provides for a three-year statute of limitations, meaning that an infringement lawsuit must be brought within three years of any infringing activity or from the time the plaintiff reasonably knew (or had reason to know) of the infringement; the latter situation is referred to as the “discovery rule.” Where copyright infringement is ongoing, courts allow suits to be brought within three years of the discovery of any continuing acts of infringement. 

In this case, the defendants had argued that even if plaintiffs could avail themselves of the discovery rule, they should not be allowed damages for infringement that occurred more than three years before the suit was filed. That was the question before the Supreme Court: whether a copyright plaintiff can recover damages for infringing activity that occurred more than three years before a suit is filed. Our amicus brief argued that the answer should be a strong yes. Otherwise, the discovery rule would be meaningless. 

Extremely few creators can afford to bring a lawsuit without the ability to receive damages from which to pay their lawyers. Our brief pointed to the Guild’s recent author income survey, which shows that half of all full-time authors continue to earn well below minimum wage. Copyright protection and the ability to recover an adequate level of damages are exceedingly important to an author’s ability to defend their livelihood. 

The Court heard oral argument in the case on February 21. We are delighted that the Court’s decision, issued on May 9, agreed with the Authors Guild’s position that damages should not be limited to the three-year period, strengthening copyright protections for writers and other creators.