Supreme Court Affirms Broad Scope of Copyright Damages

Business, Intellectual Property

by | May 13, 2024

In a landmark decision that could reshape the landscape of copyright law, on May 9, 2024, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of extending the potential for damages in copyright infringement cases beyond the traditional three-year limitation from the date of infringement. This ruling comes from the case of Nealy v. Warner Chappell Music, Inc., where the court held that a copyright owner can claim damages for infringements that occurred more than three years before filing a lawsuit, provided the claim is filed within three years of when the infringement was discovered.

The background of the case involves Sherman Nealy, co-founder of Music Specialist, Inc., which recorded several music tracks in the early 1980s. Nealy, after periods of incarceration, discovered in 2016 that Warner Chappell Music had been licensing his music without his permission, including in major commercial hits and television shows. Nealy filed a lawsuit in 2018, alleging infringements that dated back as far as 2008.

The dispute centered around the interpretation of the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations, which traditionally requires that a claim be brought within three years of the accrual of the claim. Warner Chappell argued that while Nealy could sue for recent infringements under the so-called “discovery rule” (where a claim accrues when an infringement is discovered), damages should be limited to infringements occurring only within the three years before the filing of the lawsuit. This argument was supported by a prior decision from the Second Circuit but contradicted by a ruling from the Ninth Circuit, which allowed for full retrospective damages under similar circumstances.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, clarified that the Copyright Act does not impose a separate time limit on the recovery of damages once a claim is deemed timely. The court’s opinion emphasized that limiting damages to only three years before the filing of a lawsuit, despite the discovery rule allowing older claims, would essentially nullify the benefit of the discovery rule by restricting the available remedies.

This decision is pivotal for copyright holders as it affirms their right to full legal remedies for all infringements discovered within the legal timeframe, regardless of when those infringements occurred. The ruling aims to protect the rights of copyright owners who may not be immediately aware of unauthorized uses of their work, especially in cases where they may be incapacitated or otherwise unaware of the infringements.

It is likely that this ruling will encourage more thorough investigations of potential infringements and could lead to an increase in copyright litigation as older infringements become viable for legal action. The decision is seen as a victory for artists, producers, and copyright holders who seek to protect their intellectual property from unauthorized use, ensuring they can claim damages for all infringements if discovered within the statute of limitations.

As the dust settles on this Supreme Court decision, the impact on the entertainment and music industries could be significant, potentially leading to more careful practices around licensing agreements and copyright compliance.


  • Jaklin Guyumjyan

    Jaklin’s work focuses on business litigation and transactional matters, as well as assisting on family law and employment matters.

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