Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick

PETITIONER:Reed Elsevier, Inc., et al.
RESPONDENT:Irvin Muchnick, et al.

DOCKET NO.: 08-103
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 559 US 154 (2010)
GRANTED: Mar 02, 2009
ARGUED: Oct 07, 2009
DECIDED: Mar 02, 2010

Charles S. Sims – argued the cause for the petiioners
Deborah Jones Merritt – argued the cause for amicus curiae in support of the judgment below (appointed by the Court)
Ginger D. Anders – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

A federal district court in New York approved an $18 million settlement in a class-action brought by freelance writers who had contracted with the defendant publishers to publish their works in print. Without authorization, the publishers reproduced the works for electronic distribution. Muchnick and others objected to the settlement.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit overturned the settlement on the ground that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over claims relating to unregistered works. The court stated that the Copyright Act grants the federal district courts jurisdiction only over those claims that arise from registered works. Since the vast majority of the claimants in the litigation based their claims on unregistered works, the federal district court did not have the power to certify a class in the litigation.


Does Section 411(a) of the Copyright Act restrict subject matter jurisdiction of federal courts over copyright infringement actions?

Media for Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 07, 2009 in Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 02, 2010 in Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Thomas has our opinion this morning in case 08-103 Elsevier versus Muchnick.

Clarence Thomas:

Now this case comes to us on the writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

In New York Times versus Tasini, we held that several print publishers and owners of online databases had infringed the copyrights of six freelance authors by reproducing the author’s works, electronically, without for securing their permission.

Those holding affirmed the theory of liability underlying other copyright infringement lawsuits then pending against the publishers and database owners for similar conduct.

Following Tasini, these other lawsuits were consolidated into a single case.

The authors then filed an amended class-action complaint against the publishing companies and database owners.

The named plaintiffs each owned at least one copyright that they had registered with the copyright office in accordance with the Copyright Act.

But class also included authors who had not registered their copyright works.

After years of negotiations, the parties reached a comprehensive settlement agreement and moved to District Court to approve it.

Some of the authors of unregistered works objected, arguing that settlement treated them unfairly as compared to authors of registered works.

The District Court overruled these objections, certified a settlement class and approve the settlement agreement.

The objecting authors appeal before oral argument to Court of Appeals on its own accord asked the parties to brief whether the District Court had subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate infringement claims involving unregistered copyrights.

The basis for the courts inquiry 17 USC 4, section 411 (a) which provides an relevant part that no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States, in any United States work shall be instituted until pre-registration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with the Copyright Act.

All parties filed briefs contending that the District Court had subject matter jurisdiction to certify a class of claims arising from the infringement of unregistered works and to approve a settlement with respect to those same claims, the Court of Appeals disagreed and vacated the order approving the settlement agreement.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, section 41ll (a) is a registration requirement, is a pre-condition to filing a claim for copyright infringement, that does not restrict the federal court subject matter jurisdiction.

Congress did not clearly state that section 411 (a) is registration requirement is jurisdiction and nothing about the structure of section 411 (a) or its context including this Court’s prior interpretation of similar provisions, suggests that Congress nonetheless ranked the registration requirement as jurisdictional despite the absence of clear jurisdictional label.

Accordingly the District Court had subject matter jurisdiction to certify the settlement class and to approve the settlement agreement even though it included claims arising from the alleged infringement of unregistered copyright works.

Justice Ginsburg has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment in which Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer joined.

Justice Sotomayor took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.