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No Time Limit for Damages from Copyright Infringement

The Supreme Court held that copyright owners who file a timely claim may obtain damages no matter when the copyright infringement occurred.

On May 9, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in a 6–3 decision authored by Justice Kagan, that no time limit exists for monetary recovery under the Copyright Act. Although the Copyright Act sets a three-year statute of limitations for filing suit, this limit does not apply to the recovery of damages. Warner Chappell Music, Inc. v. Nealy, Case No. 22-1078, 601 U. S. ____ (2024). 

At the outset, the Court noted that it "assume[d] without deciding" that the three-year statute of limitations for filing suit—which provides that a copyright owner must file suit "within three years after the claim accrued"—begins to run upon the owner's discovery of the infringement, as opposed to when the infringing act actually occurred. Accordingly, the only question before the Court was whether a separate time-based limit applies to the recovery of damages for the infringement, i.e., whether a copyright owner can recover damages for infringing acts that occurred more than three years before the filing of a lawsuit (albeit discovered later). This question was the subject of a circuit split.  

Relying on the text of the Copyright Act, the Court determined that the statutory language creates a "singular" clock: "No civil action shall be maintained under the provisions of this title unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued." 17 U.S.C. § 507(b). It does not create any separate three-year period for recovering damages. The Court thus held that a copyright owner "possessing a timely claim for infringement is entitled to damages, no matter when the infringement occurred," and affirmed the Eleventh Circuit's judgment.  

The dissent, authored by Justice Gorsuch, noted that the Copyright Act "almost certainly does not tolerate a discovery rule" and criticized the majority for "expound[ing] on the details of a rule of law that they may assume but very likely does not exist." Because the discovery rule was still an open question, the dissent would have dismissed the case, as better "to answer a question that does matter than one that almost certainly does not." 

Unless and until the discovery rule is rejected—a decision that would bar suits for infringing acts that occurred more than three years ago, regardless of when the copyright owner discovered those acts—copyright owners will not have time-based limits on monetary recovery for infringements.

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