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.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving copyrights, arranged from newest to oldest.

Warner Chappell Music, Inc. v. Nealy (2024)

Author: Elena Kagan

A copyright owner possessing a timely claim for infringement is entitled to damages, no matter when the infringement occurred.

Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith (2023)

Author: Sonia Sotomayor

If an original work and secondary use share the same or highly similar purposes, and the secondary use is commercial, the first fair use factor is likely to weigh against fair use, absent some other justification for copying.

Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org, Inc. (2020)

Author: John Roberts

Copyright protection does not extend to the annotations in the official annotated code of a state.

Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v., LLC (2019)

Author: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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.

Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. (2017)

Author: Clarence Thomas

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.

ABC v. Aereo, Inc. (2014)

Author: Stephen Breyer

A streaming service infringed the public performance right by selling its subscribers a technologically complex service that allowed them to watch television programs over the Internet at about the same time as the programs were broadcast over the air.

Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (2013)

Author: Stephen Breyer

The first sale doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad.

MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. (2005)

Author: David Souter

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.

Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc. (1998)

Author: Clarence Thomas

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.

Quality King Distributors, Inc. v. L'anza Research Int'l, Inc. (1998)

Author: John Paul Stevens

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.)

Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. (1994)

Author: David Souter

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.

Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc. (1994)

Author: William Rehnquist

Prevailing plaintiffs and prevailing defendants in copyright infringement cases must be treated similarly regarding attorney fees, which may be awarded to prevailing parties only as a matter of the court's discretion.

Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc. (1991)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

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.

Stewart v. Abend (1990)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

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.

Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid (1989)

Author: Thurgood Marshall

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.)

Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises (1985)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

Generally, the author's right to control the first public appearance of their un-disseminated expression will outweigh a claim of fair use.

Mills Music, Inc. v. Snyder (1985)

Author: John Paul Stevens

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.

Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. (1984)

Author: John Paul Stevens

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.

Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken (1975)

Author: Potter Stewart

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.

Goldstein v. California (1973)

Author: Warren Burger

The Constitution does not expressly or by inference vest all power to grant copyright protection exclusively in the federal government.

Mazer v. Stein (1954)

Author: Stanley Reed

Artistic articles are protected in form, but not their mechanical or utilitarian aspects.

International News Service v. Associated Press (1918)

Author: Mahlon Pitney

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.

Herbert v. Shanley Co. (1917)

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

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.

Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus (1908)

Author: William Rufus Day

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.

Mifflin v. R.H. White Co. (1903)

Author: Henry Billings Brown

When there is no evidence that the publishers were the assignees or acted as the agents of the author for the purpose of taking out copyright, the copyright entry of a magazine will not validate the copyright entry subsequently made under a different title by the author of a portion of the contents of the magazine.

Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co. (1903)

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The least pretentious picture has more originality in it than directories, which may be copyrighted.

Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony (1884)

Author: Samuel Freeman Miller

Congress can confer copyright protection for photographs that are representations of original intellectual conceptions.

Baker v. Selden (1879)

Author: Joseph Bradley

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.

Wheaton v. Peters (1834)

Author: John McLean

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.

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