Copyrights Supreme Court Cases
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution provides that Congress can “promote the progress of…useful art” by granting authors exclusive rights to their “writings.” This clause forms the foundation of U.S. copyright law, although the scope of copyrighted subject matter now extends well beyond “writings.” To be copyrightable, a creative work generally must have at least some originality and must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. The holder of a copyright possesses a bundle of rights. These include the rights to reproduce, distribute, and publicly perform or display the work, as well as the right to create “derivative works” based on the original copyrighted work.
To sue someone else for infringing their copyright, the author must have registered their work with the U.S. Copyright Office. Perhaps the most common defense to infringement is the fair use defense, which generally requires a court to consider four factors:
- The purpose and character of the use
- The nature of the copyrighted work
- The amount and significance of the copied portion
- The market effect on the copyrighted work
As technology has evolved, copyright infringement of audio and visual works has become rampant despite the risk of harsh penalties. In response, the Supreme Court and other courts have developed theories of secondary copyright infringement, such as contributory infringement. These allow a copyright owner to more effectively enforce their rights.
No reporter has or can have any copyright in the written opinions delivered by the Supreme Court, and the Justices cannot confer on any reporter any such right.
Baker v. Selden (1879)
A claim to the exclusive property in a peculiar system of bookkeeping cannot be maintained by the author of a treatise in which that system is exhibited and explained.
Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony (1884)
Congress can confer copyright protections on photographs that are representations of original intellectual conceptions.
Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co. (1903)
The least pretentious picture has more originality in it than directories, which may be copyrighted.
Mifflin v. R.H. White Co. (1903)
The serial publication of an author’s work in a magazine with their consent and before any steps are taken to secure a copyright bars any later attempt to take out a copyright.
Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus (1908)
The sole right to vend granted by federal copyright law does not secure to the owner of the copyright the right to qualify future sales by their vendee or to limit or restrict such future sales at a specified price.
Herbert v. Shanley Co. (1917)
The performance of a copyrighted musical composition in a restaurant or hotel without charge for admission to hear it but as an incident of other entertainment for which the public pays infringes the public performance right.
International News Service v. Associated Press (1918)
One who gathers news at pains and expense, for the purpose of lucrative publication, may be said to have a quasi-property in the results of their enterprise as against a rival in the same business, and the appropriation of those results at the expense and to the damage of one and for the profit of the other is unfair competition, against which equity will afford relief.
Mazer v. Stein (1954)
Artistic articles are protected in form, but not their mechanical or utilitarian aspects.
Goldstein v. California (1973)
The Constitution does not expressly or by inference vest all power to grant copyright protection exclusively in the federal government.
Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken (1975)
The reception of a radio broadcast of a copyrighted musical composition is not copyright infringement when the copyright owner has licensed the broadcaster to perform the composition publicly for profit.
Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. (1984)
The sale of copying equipment, like the sale of other articles of commerce, does not constitute contributory infringement if the product is widely used for legitimate, unobjectionable purposes, or is merely capable of substantial non-infringing uses.
Mills Music, Inc. v. Snyder (1985)
Congress did not intend to draw a distinction between authorizations to prepare derivative works that are based on a single direct grant and those that are based on successive grants.
Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises (1985)
Generally, the author’s right to control the first public appearance of their un-disseminated expression will outweigh a claim of fair use.
Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid (1989)
A creator was an independent contractor when he engaged in a skilled occupation, supplied his own tools, worked in a separate workplace, was retained for a short period of time, had absolute freedom to decide when and how long to work, and had total discretion in hiring and paying assistants, among other factors. (This case concerned whether a creative work was a work for hire.)
Stewart v. Abend (1990)
Assignees of the right to produce a derivative work or some other portion of the renewal rights hold nothing but an unfulfilled and unenforceable expectancy if the author dies before the renewal period, unless the assignees secure a transfer of the renewal rights from the author’s statutory successor.
Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc. (1991)
The originality requirement necessitates independent creation plus a modicum of creativity. Although a compilation of facts may possess the requisite originality because the author typically chooses which facts to include, in which order to place them, and how to arrange the data so that readers may use them effectively, copyright protection extends only to those components of the work that are original to the author.
Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. (1994)
The cognizable harm under the fourth factor of the fair use test is market substitution, rather than harm from criticism. A parody is unlikely to act as a substitute for the original work, since the two works usually serve different market functions.
Quality King Distributors, Inc. v. L’Anza Research Int’l, Inc. (1998)
The first sale doctrine endorsed in Section 109(a) of the Copyright Act is applicable to imported copies. (The first sale doctrine generally provides that the owner of a copy of a work may sell or dispose of the copy without getting permission from the copyright owner.)
Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc. (1998)
The Seventh Amendment provides a right to a jury trial on all issues pertinent to an award of statutory damages in a copyright infringement case, including the amount.
MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. (2005)
An entity that distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, going beyond mere distribution with knowledge of third-party action, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties using the device, regardless of the device’s lawful uses.
Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (2013)
The first sale doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad.
Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. (2017)
A feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article, and it would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work (on its own or fixed in another tangible medium of expression) if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated.
Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC (2019)
A copyright claimant may commence an infringement lawsuit only when the Copyright Office registers a copyright. Upon registration of the copyright, the copyright owner can recover damages for infringement both before and after registration.