Shapiro Arato Granted Summary Judgment Under Emerging Doctrine in Copyright Law

On September 28, 2017, Judge Richard J. Sullivan of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted Shapiro Arato’s motion for summary judgement on behalf of defendant Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. under an emerging doctrine in copyright law that has split the lower courts.

Plaintiff’s Complaint alleged that he owned the copyright to a photograph that appeared in the liner notes to a CD that Sony had released in 2005 and stopped offering for sale in 2006, over a decade before the case was filed.  Plaintiff did not register the photograph with the United States Copyright Office until at least 2007, almost two years after Sony began selling the Album.

Shapiro argued that Plaintiff’s suit was time-barred in its entirety under the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.  The Supreme Court stated in Petrella that copyright plaintiffs are limited to “retrospective relief only three years back from the time of suit.”  This language reads as a de facto endorsement of the so-called “injury rule,” under which the Copyright Act’s three-year limitations period accrues when the infringing act occurs.  We accordingly argued that Petrella abrogated the Second Circuit’s “discovery rule,” under which the limitations period accrues upon discovery of a claim.  But regardless of which accrual rule applies, we argued, Petrella establishes that copyright plaintiffs may gain retrospective relief only three years back from the time of suit.  Moreover, Plaintiff was barred from recovering statutory damages and attorneys’ fees because Plaintiff did not register the photograph before the alleged infringement commenced.

Whether Petrella establishes a “look back” period—under which copyright plaintiffs’ recovery is limited to the three-year period prior to filing suit, even under a discovery accrual rule—has split the lower courts.  Some decisions (including at least one in the Southern District of New York) have concluded that Petrella does no such thing.  But Judge Sullivan accepted our argument that Petrella is unequivocal on this point, and rejected Plaintiff’s argument that this limitation was only dicta.  Judge Sullivan also agreed that Plaintiff’s claims for statutory damages and fees were regardless untimely.

The Court’s full opinion is available here.