Warner Chappell Music v. Nealy is a case pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. The case involves the interpretation of the three year statute of limitations in copyright cases. Statutes of limitations are laws that limit the time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated. The purpose is to encourage plaintiffs to file their claims promptly, and to avoid stale claims and prejudice to defendants where evidence might be lost. Warner Chappell Music argued that the statute of limitations starts running when the alleged infringement occurred, giving a plaintiff three years after that to recover damages. Nealy argued that the statute doesn't start running until he discovered the alleged infringement, or reasonably should have discovered it. This “discovery rule” would permit Nealy to recover damages for acts that occurred long ago—much longer than three years—if he filed suit within three years of “discovery.”

EFF filed an amicus brief to show how a bad result in this case could encourage copyright trolls. EFF has frequently written about copyright trolls, who are serial plaintiffs who use search tools to identify technical, often low-value infringements on the internet, and then seek nuisance settlements from many defendants.

Copyright trolls would love for the “discovery rule” to apply. They could search the internet for alleged infringements (such as a photo posted on a website) that occurred long ago, argue that they couldn’t reasonably have discovered the alleged infringement until recently, and file suit. The trolls’ targets would have trouble defending against ancient claims, and be more likely to have to pay nuisance settlements.

EFF’s amicus brief provided the court with an overview of the copyright trolling problem, and gave examples of types of trolls. The brief then showed how an unlimited look-back period for damages under the discovery rule adds risk and uncertainty for the targets of copyright trolls, and would encourage abuse of the legal system. EFF was joined in the brief by the Authors Alliance, the American Library Association, and the Association of Research Libraries.

The Court has scheduled oral argument for February 21, 2024.