From what point in time does the copyright statute of limitations begin to run?

There are two distinct statutes of limitations listed under modern copyright law—criminal proceedings and civil actions. Under Title 17 Section 507:

(a) Criminal Proceedings.—Except as expressly provided otherwise in this title, no criminal proceeding shall be maintained under the provisions of this title unless it is commenced within 5 years after the cause of action arose.

(b) Civil Actions.—No civil action shall be maintained under the provisions of this title unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued.

In other words, criminal prosecution for copyright infringement extends to five years, civil prosecution is limited to three. 

Statute of Limitations Tolls

Under copyright law, the statute of limitations tolls, or begins running, when the infringement is discovered. So, if someone republished your work as their own six years ago, but you just discovered it, you can still sue for copyright infringement. However, the issue is then raised as to the amount of damages you can collect.

The general rule is that the statute of limitations starts from the date of the last infringing act. However, the courts are divided as to how this applies. Some courts hold that you can recover your damages for the entirety of the infringement so long as a lawsuit is filed within 3 years of the last infringing act; others limit damages to those acts which occurred within the three years leading up to the lawsuit.

Damages for Copyright Infringement

Some states resolve the issue by instead offering only statutory damages to those whose cases require extensive tolling. Modern statutory damages are, “not less than $750 or more than $30,000 as the court considers just.” 

Another issue that effects the total damages and the statute of limitations is the intentionality behind the infringement. The court awards greater damages where the infringer has acted fraudulently or intentionally, so what constitutes an infringing act may also vary.

For example, you authored a magazine article published on July 1, 1998, and on September 30, 1998, somebody directly copies the article without your permission and puts it in a book manuscript as her own. Assume the book is released June 1, 1999, and is then reprinted in a second edition (with your material unchanged) on December 15, 2000. Courts might come to different conclusions in deciding whether the infringement occurred on September 30, 1998, June 1, 1999 or December 15, 2000 -- or if the book remains on the market, even later. 

Getting Help

If someone has infringed on your copyright, contact a copyright attorney as soon as possible to begin filing your case. Remember that under all circumstances, your statute of limitations runs from the time you discovered the copyright infringement.