Twist to Claiming Copyright Protection

Valancourt Books, LLC v. Perlmutter et al.

Well … it seems US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, sitting in the US District Court for the District of Columbia (that would be in Washington DC) has added a new twist to the claiming of copyright protection. You have to register the work with the US Copyright Office to include notice of copyright protection in the work.

This could have … ahem … interesting fallout for things like websites and blogs.

You can read the opinion here.

Brief Background

Valencourt Books, LLC (“Valencourt”) is a very small (as in home-based), independent publisher that publishes rare, neglected, or out-of-print fictional works on demand. The works that Valencourt prints bear a copyright notice, but Valencourt does not register any copyright in the works it publishes with the US Copyright Office. Valencourt put copyright notice in its published books, but did not register that copyright and did not provide the Copyright Office with its requisite two copies. Under such circumstances, the Copyright Office takes the view that the claimant is claiming the protection of federal law without complying with the requirements of federal law. They can send out a demand letter and issue fines ranging from $250 per unregistered-but-claimed work to $2500 per unregistered-but-claimed work.

The Copyright Office issued its demand.

Valencourt replied that the requirement for copies runs afoul of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution and that no, it would not provide the requisite two copies to the Copyright Office because doing so was an undue burden on a very small business.

The Copyright Office, pre-litigation, countered this complaint by offering to accept electronic copies of the works, even though the works had been published (ordinarily, the Copyright Office requires printed copies to be provided for published works). However, Valencourt rejected the offer because they didn’t want any special treatment from the Copyright Office … the settlement proposed by the Copyright Office is an exception to the requirement and does not change the Office’s requirement for physical copies from other small publishers … and because the works were not already accessible in electronic format and getting them into that format would be an undue burden on Valencourt’s owners and employees.

Valencourt sued the US Copyright Office (Shira Perlmutter is the Register of Copyrights) claiming that the deposit requirement violates the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution. The Copyright Office countered with the claim that Valencourt was claiming copyright protection without complying with the requirements for that protection.

Valencourt alleges that the Copyright Office’s deposit requirement is an unconstitutional taking of private property because “…the government is demanding copies of publishers’ works for its own use without providing compensation to the affected parties.” Compl ¶ 1; Pl.’ Mom. at 18. Judge Jackson didn’t buy it. Citing Ruckelshaus v. Monsanto Co., 467 US 986, 1007 (1984), she explains that SCOTUS precedent establishes that “…a statute that confers a “benefit” [like copyright protection – comment added] on a citizen may condition the receipt of that benefit on the submission of private property in exchange without running afoul of the Takings Clause.” Slip Op. at 11. So … the Copyright Office can indeed “take” the two best copies of the work to be copyrighted in exchange for copyright protection without violating the Takings Clause. This is no surprise; deposits of copyrighted materials have been required since the first US copyright law came into existence in the 1790s.

Deposit Requirement and Free Speech

This section of the case contains no surprises. The deposit requirement is not subject to strict scrutiny because it is entirely … ENTIRELY … content-neutral. The deposit requirement does not attempt to limit speech; the requirement is the same for any work being registered regardless of the content of that work. Also, the burden imposed upon the copyright claimant by the deposit requirement is hardly unreasonable in relation to the benefit the requirement confers on the public.

Copyright, Registration, and Notice

The interesting part of the case is the issue of the copyright notice in publications that are not registered with the Office. The Court hides this in its discussion of the Takings Clause, but it’s important.

Valencourt includes copyright notice in its books and thus (1) informs the public that the works are copyrighted, (2) deters potential infringers, and (3) removes any innocent infringement defense. The claiming of copyright is just as voluntary as is the registration for copyright, and, since the enforcement of copyright protection is limited to those who have registered their works (see 17 USC 411), copyright in unregistered works cannot be enforced. Because plaintiff does not volunteer to register copyright in the works and certainly does not volunteer to send copies of the works to the Copyright Office, Plaintiff does not get to claim, by including notice of copyright in the published works, the benefits conferred by its notice of copyright.

This is huge. Just think of all those websites and blogs out there that have a copyright notice on them that are unregistered. Suddenly, it’s clear that the existence of the notice can trigger the demand letter from the Copyright Office and the subsequent fines.