Update: Can Plaintiffs Recover Damages for Acts Outside of the Copyright Act’s Statute of Limitations?

In the recent case Warner Chappell Music, Inc. v. Nealy, No. 22-1078, 2024 U.S. LEXIS 1978 (May 9, 2024), the Supreme Court addressed whether a copyright plaintiff may recover damages for infringements occurring more than three years before the lawsuit, provided that the claim was filed within three years of the infringement’s discovery. The Court held that the Copyright Act imposes no timeframe for claiming damages – regardless of when the infringement took place – as long as the plaintiff filed in a timely manner.

As discussed in a previous posting, this matter arose when Sherman Nealy – a music producer – filed suit against Warner Chappell Music, Inc. and Artist Publishing Group LLC, for allegedly using his songs without his permission. Nealy had been incarcerated for several years and maintained that during this time he was not aware that the music he claims to own was licensed by a former business partner to Warner Chappell, Artist Publishing Group, and others.

In the opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, and joined by Justices John Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson, the Court held that, “[t]here is no time limit on monetary recovery.” Id. at *10. Accordingly, “a copyright owner possessing a timely claim is entitled to damages for infringement, no matter when the infringement occurred.” Id.

The majority emphasized that its holding assumes a timely claim to be one which is brought within three years of when the copyright owner discovered – or reasonably should have discovered – the infringement. However, the Court did not address the discovery rule – i.e., “whether a copyright claim accrues when a plaintiff discovers or should have discovered an infringement, rather than when the infringement happened”- (Id. at *8) since the lower courts had applied the discovery rule and the appropriateness of that ruling was not before it.

Eleven days later, on May 20, 2024, the Court also declined to review a Fifth Circuit decision involving the discovery rule. In the Fifth Circuit’s holding, Hearst Newspapers was found liable for infringing copyrighted photos of Ireland’s “Guinness Castle,” despite the suit being filed past the three-year statute of limitations. See Martinelli v. Hearst Newspapers, L.L.C., 65 F.4th 231 (5th Cir. 2023). These back-to-back actions suggest that the Court is disinclined to opine on the judicially-created discovery rule at this time.