Ninth Circuit Holds that Copyright Registration for Collective Work Includes Component Parts

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that copyright registration of a collective work also registers the component parts within it.

The case involved Alaska Stock, a stock photography agency that registered large number of photographs with the copyright office at one time by registering CD catalogs of the photos. For “name of author” on the copyright registration form, Alaska Stock listed only three specific names and added “& 103 others.”

Under conditions specified by the US Copyright Office, large groups of published photographs can be registered together using a single form and by paying a single fee.

Alaska Stock licensed Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. to use the registered pictures in exchange for a fee based on the number of publications the photos were used in.

When Houghton Mifflin and its printer greatly exceeded the number of publications, Alaska Stock sued for copyright infringement.

Even though Alaska Stock’s form of registration was consistent with the Copyright Office’s procedure for more than 30 years, the district court dismissed its claims because it had not provided the names of each photograph and photographer.

The district court stated that the Copyright Office’s administrative practice did not supersede the clear statement of the copyright statute that required titles and authors to be listed individually.

The Ninth Circuit reversed, deferring to the Copyright Office’s interpretation of the law, noting that:

A longstanding administrative interpretation upon which private actors have relied aids in construction of a statute precisely because private parties have long relied upon it.

The court also noted that:

We are not performing a mere verbal, abstract task when we construe the Copyright Act. We are affecting the fortunes of people, many of whose fortunes are small. The stock agencies through their trade association worked out what they should do to register images with the Register of Copyrights, the Copyright Office established a clear procedure and the stock agencies followed it. The Copyright Office has maintained its procedure for three decades, spanning multiple administrations. The livelihoods of photographers and stock agencies have long been founded on their compliance with the Register’s reasonable interpretation of the statute. Their reliance upon a reasonable and longstanding administrative interpretation should be honored. Denying the fruits of reliance by citizens on a longstanding administrative practice reasonably construing a statute is unjust.

If you have questions about the registration of collective works, or copyright law in general, contact our office to arrange a free initial consultation with one of our copyright lawyers.

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Photo Attribution:”Contact sheet of 35mm (24×36 mm) black-and-white film” by Satashi (きたし) is licensed under CC BY 3.0


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