The United States Supreme Court recently announced its Opinion in Warner Chappell Music, Inc. v. Nealy, 144 S. Ct. 1135 (2024). At issue was whether recoverable damages under the Copyright Act were limited to the three-year statute of limitations period. The Supreme Court found that the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations does not bar recovery for infringing act(s) occurring more than three years prior to bringing suit.

Plaintiff Nealy brought suit for copyright infringement when his former music partner licensed their music without his consent. Nealy had been in and out of prison, so he did not discover the allegedly infringing events until 2018. Nealy alleged that infringement occurred as early as 2008. Nealy’s copyrighted work had been licensed to artists, such as Flo Rida, which became an integral beat for his hit “In the Ayer.”

Nealy brought suit in federal district court in Florida. The Eleventh Circuit follows the “discovery rule” for copyright infringement. Effectively, that allows the three-year statute of limitations for copyright infringement to run either from the date of infringement or three years from when a plaintiff discovered or should have discovered the infringement. The Fourth Circuit also follows the “discovery rule” for copyright infringement[1].

The Supreme Court assumed, without deciding, that the discovery rule is an alternative method to determine the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations. Put another way, Nealy does not resolve the circuit split regarding whether a “discovery rule” exists under the Copyright Act.

However, the Supreme Court did determine that a plaintiff is entitled to damages for any timely copyright infringement claim, regardless of when the legal injury occurred, even if it occurred outside of the three-year statute of limitations. In the context of Nealy, Plaintiff Nealy could recover statutory or actual damages going back to 2008, despite bringing suit in 2018.

The Supreme Court makes clear that damages under the Copyright Act hold no temporal bounds. If a claim is timely brought, a defendant may be liable for damages stretching back years or potentially decades.

[1]  Lyons P’ship, L.P. v. Morris Costumes, Inc., 243 F.3d 789, 796 (4th Cir. 2001).