Supreme Court Rules That Copyright Damages Have No Time Limit

Front exterior of a neoclassical building featuring a row of Corinthian columns and the engraving "Equal Justice Under Law" on the frieze.

The United States Supreme Court rejected a lower court’s ruling that there is a three-year time limit to claim damages from copyright infringement. All claims, even those that occurred decades previously, are fair game as long as the lawsuit is filed within three years of discovery.

The case was brought to the Supreme Court when a musician sued Warner Chappell, a music specialist catalog, after a sample of their music was used in Flo Rida’s hit song “In the Ayer,” which sold millions of copies and cracked Billboard’s Top 10. That deal did not benefit the artist, Sherman Nealy, who realized in 2018 that his sample was used dating back to 2008.

Under previous understanding of copyright law, this infringement was outside the statue of limitations — three years. There already was a statute of limitations on filing complaints but a lower court applied that to whether or not damages could also be claimed. Before the Supreme Court ruled, lower courts had been back and forth on the issue, with the last ruling going against Nealy.

But the Supreme Court rejected that understanding of the law in a six to three decision.

“The Copyright Act entitles a copyright owner to obtain monetary relief for any timely infringement claim, no matter when the infringement occurred. The Act’s statute of limitations establishes a three-year period for filing suit, which begins to run when a claim accrues,” Justice Elena Kagan writes.

“That provision establishes no separate three-year limit on recovering damages.”

As noted by TorrentFreak, there were some concerns that lifting any time limit on damages would open the door to copyright trolls. It also means that music rights-holders like Warner Chappell may find themselves at risk of additional lawsuits from samples used decades ago, but where nothing was ever paid out. For artists, that doesn’t sound so bad.

For photographers, it means that if a photo was infringed upon years ago — like if a photo was blatantly copied in a different medium — there is no time limit to seek damages as long as a lawsuit is filed within three years of the time of discovery. Considering it is totally possible for a photographer not to realize their work was stolen for years after the fact, that’s a win for them.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.