Seventh Circuit: Notice requirement to Copyright Office when registration refused not jurisdictional

September 22, 2009
Post by Blog Staff

In a recent decision, the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court's grant of summary judgment that a plaintiff could not prevail in her copyright claim. The court first addressed whether the plaintiff complied with the necessary procedural requirements to have her claim heard. The plaintiff had filed for a copyright registration and had been rejected (thereby satisfying part of the requirements of § 411). However, when filing suit, she did not notify the Copyright Office she was doing so, and thus did not meet this second requirement applicable to those who bring suit after being refused registration. This fact notwithstanding, the Seventh Circuit concluded it could hear the case, given the plaintiff had her registration refused. The court characterized the notification requirement as a case processing rule, and observed the copyright office had granted a registration in the interim, and thus the purpose of the notification requirement (to permit the Copyright Office to address the issue of registrability) was satisfied.On the merits, the court noted the plaintiff's claim failed because she did not allege copying of any of the actual materials protected by copyright, but rather her ideas for better educating students. The court affirmed the long standing rule that copyright protection does not extend to ideas, but rather the original expression of an idea.More detail of Brooks-Ngwenya v. Indianapolis Pub. Sch. after the jump.While employed as a classroom assistant in the Indianapolis Public School system, Angel E. Brooks-Ngwenya developed a program entitled "Transitioning Into Responsible Students" (TIRS) designed to assist underachieving students. Brooks-Ngwenya alleged that after she was terminated the Indianapolis Public School system continued to use the TIRS program despite the school system's alleged promise to hire her as a permanent classroom coordinator and to buy TIRS if it was successful. As a result, Brooks-Ngwenya sued for copyright infringement.The district court granted summary judgment for the school system on the basis that the plaintiff could not prevail because she had not satisfied the registration prerequisite prior to filing her lawsuit. Brooks-Ngwenya had filed for a registration before bringing her claim for infringement, but her application for registration was refused by the Copyright Office. Brooks-Ngwenya appealed. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, but on the merits rather than jurisdictionally. Specifically, the court noted 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) is clear that an applicant refused registration may still sue for infringement. However, that section also requires such a refused applicant provide notice to the Copyright Registrar by sending a copy of the complaint to the general counsel of the Copyright Office. Here, the plaintiff failed to provide the Copyright Office with the required notice. The question, therefore, was whether this notice requirement was jurisdictional (requiring dismissal on subject matter jurisdiction grounds) or a case-processing rule (which is not jurisdictional). The court noted the notification requirement is a mandatory one and the district court should have insisted on Plaintiff's compliance with the requirement. However, because the Copyright Office granted Plaintiff's renewed application during the litigation, the court observed that the issue was "academic." Turning to the merits of plaintiff's case, the court held the case failed because "she did not prove or try to prove that IPS copied any of the materials protected by her copyright." Rather, she alleged that IPS copied her "ideas for better educating students." The court noted the long-standing doctrine that copyright does not extend to protection of ideas, but instead protects the original expression of ideas. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to the defendant school district.To read the full decision in Brooks-Ngwenya v. Indianapolis Pub. Sch., click here.

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