Third Circuit Clarifies Time Limits for Joint Authorship Copyright Claims, and Bars District Courts from Canceling Copyright Registrations

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has announced several bright-line rules relating to copyright law in the important field of joint authorship. The first rule is that the statute of limitations for joint authorship claims does not start to run until there is an “express repudiation” of co-authorship that notifies the author of a potential violation of his or her claimed rights. The second rule is that a copyright registration by one author that leaves out other putative authors does not by itself constitute such an "express repudiation" as a matter of law. The third rule is that if there are other allegations of repudiation, "express repudiation" is a fact issue for the jury, not the court. The fourth rule is that federal courts do not have the authority to cancel copyright registrations.

In Brownstein v. Lindsay, the Third Circuit examined competing authorship claims over a direct consumer marketing system developed in the mid-1990s known as LCID. The defendant, Tina Lindsay, wrote the rules for the marketing system. The plaintiff, Peter Brownstein, wrote the computer code that enabled the system to work. In 1996, Ms. Lindsay received two copyright registrations for the LCID system that named her as the sole author. She attached Mr. Brownstein’s code to the second registration but did not identify him as the author.

Over the next 13 years, Mr. Brownstein and Ms. Lindsay worked closely together to commercialize the LCID. All the while, Mr. Brownstein said he never knew that Ms. Lindsay had claimed sole authorship of the system. In 2009 their business relationship deteriorated, and Mr. Brownstein filed his own copyright registrations for the LCID computer code.

In 2010, Mr. Brownstein finally realized that he was not identified as a co-author on the 1996 copyright registrations. He filed this lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment of joint copyright authorship. Ms. Lindsay counterclaimed to cancel Mr. Brownstein’s 2009 registrations.

The district court granted Ms. Lindsay judgment as a matter of law, finding that Mr. Brownstein’s claim was time-barred because Ms. Lindsay's copyright registrations triggered the three-year statute of limitations. The district court also granted summary judgment for Ms. Lindsay’s counterclaim and canceled Mr. Brownstein’s 2009 copyright registrations, finding that he had no authorship interest in the LCID.

The Third Circuit reversed both holdings. It found that the district court overstepped its boundaries by deciding two factual questions that should have been left to a jury: 1) whether Mr. Brownstein indeed was a co-author of the LCID system, and 2) whether his joint authorship claim was time-barred because he had been put on inquiry notice that Ms. Lindsay disclaimed his co-authorship. Relying on other circuit court holdings, the court explained that the 1996 copyright registrations did not by themselves amount to “express repudiations” that would alert Mr. Brownstein to the potential violation of his co-authorship rights, and therefore did not start the statute of limitations.

The Third Circuit warned that “the peril of the District Court’s rationale is apparent: A challenger to a plaintiff’s authorship could surreptitiously apply for copyright registration of the plaintiff’s work to start the statute of limitations running and, if the plaintiff did not discover the registration until three years thereafter, the plaintiff’s authorship would be nullified.” The court decided that it was up to a jury to determine if there had been other potential sources of express repudiation.

The Third Circuit also found that the district court overstepped its boundaries by canceling Mr. Brownstein’s copyright registrations. It held that only the U.S. Copyright Office had the statutory authority to cancel copyright registrations, but clarified that courts could determine the validity of a copyright.