Can you ring the unrung bell? (Updated)
LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION® has recently run up against the following issue in litigation and welcomes views from the house. We think we’re on the right side of it, but there’s no question some courts have waved it away, though not usually with a lot of analytical rigor:
It is known to be a common practice for plaintiffs to file copyright claims for unregistered works, file an expedited application for registration and amend the complaint to recite or incorporate the registration before anyone calls them on it. Frequently this is not too offensive because the copyright claim is one of a number of otherwise unproblematic counts. Some courts affirmatively bless this practice; others even sua sponte “deem” a complaint amended or supplemented if somehow the record reflects the subsequent registration. But others are not so lackadaisical about operating as time machines.
Because the Copyright Act (17 USCS § 411) explicitly requires that a copyright holder own a registration to “institute” a claim for infringement — because it is a jurisdictional requisite ][UPDATE: Not quite; see above] — there is an increasingly authoritative body of authority that even where an amendment to the pleadings may be appropriate under the usual (liberal) standard, amendment may not create jurisdiction retroactively. This appears to run contrary to earlier trends among the cases that allowed a retroactive cure in the spirit of the axiom that amendment of pleadings is to be permitted liberally.
Courts are increasingly questioning whether that kind of time travel works. In Harris v. Garner, 216 F.3d 970 (11th Cir. 2000), a case involving a statutory predicate for immigration appeals, the Eleventh Circuit held, very stridently — and over the objections of an equally assertive dissent — that where a statutory requirement for jurisdiction is not met at the time of filing, even if it is met until later an amended complaint cannot create jurisdiction retroactively. The Circuit Court discussed the application of the rule to an earlier copyright decision that suggested otherwise, and in dictum, rejected that analysis.
“When Plaintiffs initiated this action the Court,” the District of New Jersey ruled earlier this year, “was without subject matter jurisdiction to hear Plaintiffs’ copyright claims.” There was no registration. Continued the court:
As such, 28 U.S.C. § 1653, which provides ‘that ‘[d]efective allegations of jurisdiction may be amended, upon terms, in the trial or appellate courts,’ does not apply to help Plaintiffs here. Section 1653 ‘addresses only incorrect statements about jurisdiction that actually exists, and not defects in the jurisdictional facts themselves.’
Wellness Publ. v. Barefoot, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1514 at *32 (D.N.J. Jan. 8, 2008), citing Newman-Green, Inc. v. Alfonzo-Larrain, 490 U.S. 826 (1989). Also this year, in Walton v. United States, 80 Fed. Cl. 251, 264 (Fed. Cl. 2008), the Federal Circuit permitted retention of jurisdiction where an amended / supplemented complaint had been filed, but did not allow relation back to the original date of the complaint. The court wrote, “it appears that binding Federal Circuit case law has not departed from the established rule that jurisdiction is determined on the basis of the facts that exist at the time the complaint was filed.”
All things considered, it would seem to be a good idea for a copyright plaintiff under such circumstances to amend as early as possible and avoid objections of prejudice or undue delay — factors that can militate even against the routine grant of motions to amend. Liberality is one thing, but jurisdiction is bigger that than that, and in contrast a lack of subject matter jurisdiction can be raised substantively at any time, even on appeal. It cannot be waived; it’s constitutional; it’s existential: Federal Rule 12(h)(3) provides, “Whenever it appears by suggestion of the parties or otherwise that the court lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter, the court shall dismiss the action.”
Here are the papers. Whatever.
UDPDATE continued: The District of Arizona disagreed with our argument, as set out in the transcript appended to the embedded PDF, which starts with our “suggestion of lack of jurisdiction,” below. That denial was one issue we were prepared to pursue as a cross-appeal in the Designer Skin case. That appeal never happened due to a global settlement with indoor tanning lotion monopolist and gelded litigation bully New Sunshine LLC.
And now it turns out now to be a non-issue, because while dismissal on this ground would have been available under Rule 12(b)(6), that Rule does not have the broad, and arguably constitutional, power of the Rule 12(h)(3)’s “Whenever,” which our client needed to call on because of the unusual procedural aspects of this litigation.
UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court negates this entire post, ruling that while a copyright registration is indeed a prerequisite to initiating a lawsuit to enforce a copyright, this is a statutory requirement and not, technically, a “jurisdictional” requirement. See the box at the top.