11th Circuit: Courts Lack Jurisdiction Over Declaratory Judgment Action for Noninfringement of Copyright, Where Defendant's Work Not Registered

by Lee Gesmer on October 23, 2008

The 11th Circuit has ruled on a somewhat obscure but interesting issue of federal jurisdiction in copyright cases.

The Declaratory Judgment Act allows one who has been threatened with a suit to file suit first, and ask for a “declaration” of non-liability. In other words, the declaratory judgment makes one who fears becoming a defendant the procedural plaintiff. The roles of “plaintiff” and “defendant” are reversed, but the underlying issue remains the same. Declaratory judgment is simply a way that a threatened party who is unwilling to live with the risk of a lawsuit at some uncertain point in the future can force the issue.

However, the Declaratory Judgment Act is procedural; it does not give rise to federal court jurisdiction. This can create a problem for the declaratory judgment plaintiff, as demonstrated in the 11th Circuit case.

Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is a jurisdictional prerequisite to a copyright infringement suit – no registration, no jurisdiction.

What if you are threatened with copyright infringement, but the owner of the work who has threatened you has not registered the work?

According to the 11th Circuit, you’re out of luck – the federal courts lack jurisdiction, and you cannot seek declaratory judgment. And, since the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over copyright claims you can’t seek relief in state court either. You just have to wait until the party threatening you registers its copyright before you can move against it (or it can move against you).

The case is Stuart Weitzman, LLC v. Microcomputer Resources, Inc.

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