Universal Studios Lllp v. Peters

Decision Date24 March 2004
Docket NumberNo. CIV.A.03-1082(RMC).,CIV.A.03-1082(RMC).
PartiesUNIVERSAL STUDIOS LLLP, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Marybeth PETERS, in her official capacity as Register of Copyrights, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Randolph D. Moss, Wilmer Cutler Pickering LLP, Washington, DC, for Plaintiffs.

James J. Gilligan, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Defendants.


COLLYER, District Judge.

This case asks whether Marybeth Peters, United States Register of Copyrights, properly refused to accept a claim for statutory royalties filed by Universal City Studios LLLP and Universal City Studios Productions LLLP (collectively "Universal") because the claim arrived in Washington, D.C. on August 3, 2001, and Universal has no date stamp from the U.S. Postal Service to show that it had been mailed by July 31, 2001. Finding that Ms. Peters acted properly, the Court will grant her motion for summary judgment2 and deny Universal's cross-motion for summary judgment.3

Background Facts
A. Statutory Scheme

Cable television operators and satellite carriers that re-transmit certain broadcast television signals must periodically deposit prescribed fees with the Copyright Office of the United States Library of Congress ("Copyright Office" or "Office") for distribution to those who own the copyrights for the re-transmitted programming.4 During the month of July in each year, copyright holders may file claims to these royalties with the Librarian of Congress, in accord with regulations issued by the Copyright Office.5

This statutory scheme was established in 1976, when Congress directed cable operators to pay royalties. Because it would be impractical to require individual negotiations over every re-transmission, Congress established a compulsory license allowing cable systems to re-transmit broadcast signals, conditioned on payment of a statutory royalty. Copyright Act of 1976, Pub.L. No. 94-553 § 101, 90 Stat. 2541, 2551-55 (1976) (codified as amended at 17 U.S.C. §§ 111(c), (d)); see also Cablevision Sys. Dev. Co. v. Motion Picture Ass'n of Am., Inc., 836 F.2d 599, 602-03 (D.C.Cir.1988). In 1988, Congress applied the same rationale to require satellite carriers to pay the same kinds of licensing fees. See 17 U.S.C. § 119.

The Act initially established the Copyright Royalty Tribunal to distribute the royalties collected.6 The Tribunal first adopted claims-filing regulations in 1978, according to which claims were timely if mailed "prior to the expiration of the statutory period and ... accompanied by a certificate stating the date of [mailing]." 43 Fed.Reg. 24528, 24529 (June 6, 1978). Ten years later, the Tribunal adopted new rules providing that claims would "be considered timely only" if they were "received ... during the month of July" or they bore "a July U.S. postmark." 54 Fed.Reg. 12614, 12619 (Mar. 28, 1989). In 1991, the Tribunal added new language stating that "[c]laims dated only with a business meter that are received after July 31 will not be accepted as having been filed during the month of July." 56 Fed.Reg. 2437, 2438 (Jan. 23, 1991).

In 1993, Congress abolished the Tribunal and transferred its functions to the Librarian, the Register, and ad hoc copyright arbitration royalty panels.7 The Copyright Office adopted interim rules governing applications for royalty claims in May 1994; the interim rules retained the requirement that claims must be either received during the month of July or bear a July U.S. postmark. See Interim Regulations, 59 Fed.Reg. 23964, 23993 (May 9, 1994).

According to the final regulations, issued in December 1994, claims for cable and satellite carrier royalties are considered "timely filed" if they are hand-delivered to the Copyright Office during the month of July or arrive by mail with a July U.S. postmark. 37 C.F.R. §§ 252.4(a), 257.4(a). Claims arriving after July 31 and dated with only a business meter are not accepted as "timely filed." Id. at §§ 252.4(c), 257.4(c). However, a claimant may "nonetheless" establish that a claim bearing a business meter mark was timely filed, even if received after July 31, if it was sent in a specified manner and the applicant can provide a certified mail receipt bearing a July U.S. Postal Service date-stamp. Id. at § 252.4(e) ("In the event that a properly addressed and mailed claim is not timely received ... a claimant may nonetheless prove that the claim was properly filed if it was sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, and the claimant can provide a receipt bearing a July date stamp of the U.S. Postal Service .... No affidavit of an officer or employee of the claimant, or of a U.S. postal worker will be accepted in lieu of a receipt."); § 257.4(e) (same).

In comments to the final rules, the Copyright Office explained the significance of a U.S. postmark under the regulations:

The statute requires that [a] claim be with the Librarian during the month of July, arguably meaning in his possession. However, we accept the submission of a claim to the U.S. Postal Service, as statutorily sufficient, providing it bears a July U.S. postmark. The postmark is an acknowledgment that the claim was validly tendered with the U.S. Government in the month of July.

59 Fed.Reg. 63025, 63039 (Dec. 7, 1994). The Copyright Office specifically quoted the longstanding position of the Copyright Royalty Tribunal to the same effect:

[We do] not believe that our insistence that either a claim be received in our office during July or that it bear a July U.S. postmark is too restrictive. The claim itself is easy to prepare. No government forms are necessary. The information that is required can be put on one page. Further, the claimant has six months from the close of the calendar year to prepare it, and the entire month of July to submit it.... Our proposed rule provides a bright line test which should end all questions of fact regarding the timeliness of the claim.

Id. (quoting 54 Fed.Reg. 12614, 12615 (Mar. 28, 1989)). This point was emphasized by comments published by the Copyright Office in 1996 in connection with a technical amendment to the rules. Technical Amendments, 61 Fed.Reg. 63715, 63716, 63718 (Dec. 2, 1996). At that time, the Office advised that "[t]he only acceptable proof of a timely filing ... is the certified mail return receipt bearing a U.S. Postal Service mark demonstrating that the mailing occurred during the relevant time period...." Id. at 63716.

Despite the apparent clarity of these regulations and commentary, the Copyright Office has on occasion accepted mailed claims that were not received in July when the claimant could not produce a certified mail receipt:

Recently, the Copyright Office reviewed a request for reconsideration of a claim which the Office received on August 1, 1995[,] with only a business meter postmark. After further consideration of the facts, the Office has decided to accept all properly addressed claims with only a business meter postmark if they were actually in the Copyright Office on August 1, 1995, since the Office has an absolute assurance that these claims must have been deposited with the U.S. Postal Service during the month of July in order to reach the Office by August 1, 1995. The Office, however, will not accept any properly addressed claim with only a July business meter postmark which arrives in the Office on August 2, 1995, or later, because the absolute assurance of a July mailing with the U.S. Postal Service does not apply.

In re King Broadcasting Co. (KTVB-TV), A.R. Tab N at 0406.8

B. Factual Summary

Universal expends a small fortune and great effort each year creating and developing copyrighted programming that is then retransmitted. Pltfs.' Stmt. of Material Facts as to Which There is No Genuine Dispute ¶ 1 ("Pltfs.' Facts"). Universal has filed claims for cable and satellite royalties in each year that such royalties have been available, and such claims have typically involved millions of dollars in royalties. Id. ¶ 2. The following facts are not in dispute and are taken from Defendants' Statement of Material Facts As To Which There Is No Genuine Dispute ("Defs.' Facts") and Plaintiffs' Opposition to Defendants' Statement of Material Facts As To Which There Is No Genuine Dispute.

• Universal's claims for the year 2000 were delivered to the Copyright Office by certified mail on August 3, 2001, in an envelope bearing a July 30 business meter mark, but which was not postmarked by the U.S. Postal Service.

• On November 13, 2001, the Copyright Office returned Universal's claims with a cover letter noting that, because they had not been received during July and did not bear a July U.S. postmark, they had not been timely filed.

• Further, the Copyright Office informed Universal that it would accept and process its claims "ONLY if you can provide proof that the claim was properly addressed and had a July postmark of the U.S. Postal Service." A.R. Tab B at 0011 (emphasis in original).

• Universal responded on November 29, 2001, with the following evidence of its timely submission:

a. A declaration by a Pitney-Bowes employee stating that the postage meter used to date the envelope in which Universal's claims had been mailed "is a secure machine that cannot be backdated or otherwise manipulated by the end user." A.R. Tab C at 0037.

b. The declaration of a Universal mail clerk that, according to his records, the certified mail envelope containing Universal's claims was delivered to the local Post Office, and the white sender's receipt was returned to the Universal mail room, whereupon he would have returned the receipt to the person or the department within the company that originated the letter.

c. A photocopy of the green return receipt indicating that Universal's claims were received on August 3, 2001, by the Postal Service's Southwest Station in Washington, D.C.

d. A declaration by a Customer Service Representative at...

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  • Universal City Studios Lllp v. Peters, 04-5138.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • April 8, 2005
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