Psihoyos v. Wiley: Second Circuit Joins Other Circuits in Holding that Discovery Rule Applies to Statute of Limitations in Copyright Infringement Claims

June 26, 2014New York State Bar Association EASL blog

On April 4th, in Psihoyos v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., the Second Circuit joined almost every other federal Courts of Appeals in holding that the discovery rule applies to the statutory three-year statute of limitations in copyright infringement claims. The case began in March 2011, when photographer Louis Psihoyos (Psihoyos) sued publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (Wiley) for copyright infringement. Wiley had published eight of Psihoyos's unlicensed photographs in various textbooks from 2005 to 2009 and, in 2010, Wiley sought a retroactive licensing arrangement with Psihoyos, prompting Psihoyos to sue. After discovery was complete, Wiley moved for summary judgment, arguing that (1) the Copyright Act's statute of limitations barred Psihoyos' infringement claims since the infringements occurred more than three years prior to suit, and (2) Psihoyos had failed to register three of the photographs at issue with the Copyright Office prior to filing suit. More than a week after Wiley moved for summary judgment, Psihoyos submitted applications for copyright registration of the three photographs.


The district court rejected Wiley's first argument regarding the statute of limitations, holding that copyright infringement claims accrue upon actual or constructive discovery of infringement. Since Psihoyos did not discover Wiley's infringement until 2010 and filed suit shortly thereafter, the court determined that Psihoyos' claim was timely. With respect to Wiley's second argument, the district court held that pending copyright registration applications did not satisfy the Copyright Act's registration requirement under 17 U.S.C. § 411(a). Accordingly, the court granted partial summary judgment in Wiley's favor, leaving four of Psihoyos's infringement claims for trial. At trial, the jury found no infringement for one photo, awarded $750 in damages for non-willful infringement of one photo, and found willful infringement of the remaining two photos, resulting in an award of $300,000 and $100,000 in damages, respectively. Wiley moved for remittitur or, alternatively, for a new trial, but the district court denied the motion. Wiley then appealed the district court's partial denial of summary judgment and the denial of its motion for remittitur or a new trial, and Psihoyos cross-appealed the district court's partial grant of summary judgment in favor of Wiley on the photographs with pending copyright registration applications.


The Second Circuit affirmed the district court's decision that "an infringement claim does not 'accrue' until the copyright holder discovers, or with due diligence should have discovered, the infringement." In rejecting Wiley's argument that there should be "different accrual rules for ownership and infringement claims, both of which are governed by 17 U.S.C. §507(b)," the Court noted that "[i]n doing so, we join every Circuit to have considered the issue of claim accrual in the context of infringement claims," citing decisions from the First, Third, Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits. The discovery rule conformed with Congress's intent and the text and structure of the Copyright Act, as well as policy considerations. Accordingly, the Court held that the Copyright Act's statute of limitations did not bar Psihoyos's claims of copyright infringement.


With respect to the Copyright Act's registration requirement, the Second Circuit acknowledged that the Courts of Appeal were divided as to whether a pending application satisfied Section 411(a)'s requirement of copyright registration as a prerequisite for litigation. Nonetheless, the Court determined that "[w]e need not resolve the dispute or otherwise embroil ourselves in this circuit split because . . . Psihoyos had not even filed the applications for registration of the relevant works prior to instituting the action claiming infringement of the copyright in these works, as required by the plain terms of the statute." Since Psihoyos did not apply for copyright registration until after the completion of discovery and Wiley's motion for summary judgment, "he failed to satisfy the preconditions to suit under § 411(a)."


Finally, in reviewing the district court's denial of Wiley's motion for remittitur or a new trial, the Second Circuit held that the district court did not err in denying Wiley's motion and did not abuse its discretion in refusing to alter the jury's award of statutory damages. Although Wiley argued that the district court erred in failing to consider whether the award of statutory damages was reasonably related to Psihoyos's actual loss, the Second Circuit soundly rejected this argument, nothing that "[a]lthough revenue lost is one factor to consider, we have not held that there must a direct correlation between statutory damages and actual damages." The Second Circuit recognized that the jury may have considered other relevant factors to determine the damages award, including evidence of Wiley's willfulness, the substantial profits it earned, and the need for deterrence.


With this significant decision, the Second Circuit now joins most other Circuits in applying a discovery rule to the three-year statute of limitations for copyright infringement actions.