Copyright Law requires that the filing of a civil lawsuit related to copyrighted work must be “commenced within three years after the claim accrue[s].” See 17 U.S.C. 507(b). Most copyright infringement lawsuits involve actions by a defendant who has copied the plaintiff’s copyrighted work. These are referred to as ordinary copyright infringement cases when the act of copying, distributing, performing, displaying or making derivative works are at issue In these cases, any infringement claim related to copying which occurs more than three years before the filing of the lawsuit are barred, i.e., prohibited. In these cases, the defendant can still be held liable for any copying that occurs between the three year time frame and the present.
In some cases, the infringement suit is not about the acts of infringement but about the actual ownership of the work being infringed.
Generally, copyright infringement claims involve establishing 1) that the plaintiff is the owner of a valid copyright and 2) that the defendant copied the original elements of the plaintiff’s work. Again, any dispute about the ownership must be brought within three (3) years of when the claim accrues; however, when the claim is about ownership, the claim does not accrue until another party claiming ownership in copyright expressly rejects the plaintiff’s ownership claims. Therefore, their may be cases when the ownership is disputed and the acts of infringement are older than three years. In such a case, some courts may find that the infringement claims based upon a dispute on ownership may be allowable even though the acts of infringement are older than the three year deadline.
In a case where the plaintiff’s infringement claims involved a dispute as to ownership, the ninth circuit found that the plaintiff’s infringement claims were barred even though the rejection as to ownership was less than three years. The ninth circuit reasoned that when the defendant paid royalties to another party, it rejected plaintiff’s ownership and therefor, the deadline to bring an infringement claim began to accrue then.
If you have a copyrighted work which is being unlawfully copied, used or distributed, please contact one of our copyright attorneys to discuss the deadlines to sue for the unlawful use.