Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Copyright
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The Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) includes the text of every Georgia statute currently in force. Non-binding annotations appear beneath each statutory provision, typically including summaries of judicial opinions construing each provision, summaries of pertinent attorney general opinions, and a list of related law review articles and other reference materials. The OCGA is assembled by the Code Revision Commission, a state entity composed mostly of legislators, funded through legislative branch appropriations, and staffed by the Office of Legislative Counsel. The current OCGA annotations were produced by a private publisher, pursuant to a work-for-hire agreement, which states that any copyright in the OCGA vests in the state, acting through the Commission. A nonprofit, dedicated to facilitating public access to government records and legal materials, posted the OCGA online and distributed copies. The Commission sued for infringement under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 102(a). The Eleventh Circuit and the Supreme Court held that OCGA annotations are ineligible for copyright protection. Under the government edicts doctrine, officials empowered to speak with the force of law cannot be the authors of the works they create in the course of their official duties. The Court noted long-standing precedent that an official reporter cannot hold a copyright interest in opinions created by judges; no one can own the law. The doctrine applies to whatever work legislators perform in their capacity as legislators, including explanatory and procedural materials they create in the discharge of their legislative duties. The sole “author” of the annotations is the Commission, which functions as an arm of the Georgia Legislature and creates the annotations in the discharge of its legislative duties. The Court focused on authorship, stating that Georgia’s characterization of the OCGA annotations as non-binding and non-authoritative undersells the practical significance of the annotations to litigants and citizens. View "Georgia v. Public Resource.Org, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 1996, Intersal, a marine salvage company, discovered the shipwreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge off the North Carolina coast. North Carolina, the shipwreck’s legal owner, contracted with Intersal to conduct recovery. Intersal hired videographer Allen to document the efforts. Allen recorded the recovery for years. He registered copyrights in all of his works. When North Carolina published some of Allen’s videos and photos online, Allen sued for copyright infringement, arguing that the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act of 1990 (CRCA, 17 U.S.C. 511(a)) removed the states’ sovereign immunity in copyright infringement cases. The Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit, ruling in favor of North Carolina. Congress lacked the authority to abrogate the states’ immunity from copyright infringement suits in the CRCA. A federal court may not hear a suit brought by any person against a nonconsenting state unless Congress has enacted “unequivocal statutory language” abrogating the states’ immunity from suit and some constitutional provision allows Congress to have thus encroached on the states’ sovereignty. Under existing precedent, neither the Intellectual Property Clause, Art. I, section 8, cl. 8, nor Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which authorizes Congress to “enforce” the commands of the Due Process Clause, provides that authority. View "Allen v. Cooper" on Justia Law

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A jury awarded Oracle damages after finding that Rimini had infringed Oracle copyrights. The court awarded Oracle fees and costs, including $12.8 million for litigation expenses such as expert witnesses, e-discovery, and jury consulting. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, acknowledging that the award covered expenses not included within the six categories of costs identified in 28 U.S.C. 1821 and 1920, and citing the Copyright Act, which gives district courts discretion to award “full costs” to a party in copyright litigation, 17 U.S.C. 505. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed in part. The term “full costs” in the Copyright Act means costs specified in the general costs statute (sections 1821 and 1920), which defines what the term “costs” encompasses in subject-specific federal statutes such as section 505. Courts may not award litigation expenses that are not specified in sections 1821 and 1920 absent explicit authority. The Copyright Act does not explicitly authorize the award of litigation expenses beyond the six categories; the six categories do not authorize an award for expenses such as expert witness fees, e-discovery expenses, and jury consultant fees. Oracle has not shown that the phrase “full costs” had an established legal meaning that covered more than the full amount of the costs listed in the applicable costs schedule. View "Rimini Street, Inc. v. Oracle USA, Inc." on Justia Law

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The “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” of a “design of a useful article” are eligible for copyright protection as artistic works if those features “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article,” 17 U.S.C. 101. Plaintiffs have copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs, consisting of lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes, appearing on cheerleading uniforms that they design, make, and sell. They sued a competitor for infringement. The district court rejected the claims on summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed. 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 would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated. That test is satisfied here. The feature cannot be a useful article or “[a]n article that is normally a part of a useful article,” nor the replica of a useful article in another medium. While plaintiffs have no right to prevent anyone from manufacturing a cheerleading uniform that is identical in shape, cut, or dimensions to the uniforms at issue here, an artistic feature that is eligible for copyright protection on its own does not lose that protection simply because it was first created as a feature of the design of a useful article, even if it makes that article more useful. View "Star Athletica, L. L. C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc." on Justia Law

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Kirtsaeng bought low-cost foreign edition textbooks in Thailand and resold them to students in the U.S. In 2013 the Supreme Court held that Kirtsaeng could invoke the Copyright Act’s “first-sale doctrine,” 17 U.S.C. 109(a), as a defense to the publisher's copyright infringement claim. Kirtsaeng then sought more than $2 million in attorney’s fees from the publisher under the Act’s fee-shifting provision. The Second Circuit affirmed denial of Kirtsaeng’s application, reasoning that Wiley had taken reasonable positions during litigation. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. When deciding whether to award attorney’s fees under 17 U.S.C. 505, a court should give substantial weight to the objective reasonableness of the losing party’s position, while still taking into account all other relevant circumstances. Precedent has identified several non-exclusive​ factors for courts to consider, e.g., frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness, and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence. Putting substantial weight on the reasonableness of a losing party’s position is consistent with the objectives of the Copyright Act, but courts must take into account a range of considerations beyond the reasonableness of litigating positions. Because the district court “may not have understood the full scope of its discretion,” the Court remanded for consideration of other relevant factors. View "Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc." on Justia Law

Posted in: Copyright, Legal Ethics
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The Copyright Act protects works published before 1978 for 28 years, renewable for up to 67 years, 17 U.S.C. 304(a). An author’s heirs inherit renewal rights. If an author who has assigned rights dies before the renewal period the assignee may continue to use the work only if the author’s successor transfers renewal rights to the assignee. The Act provides for injunctive relief and damages. Civil actions must be commenced within three years after the claim accrued-ordinarily when an infringing act occurred. Under the separate-accrual rule, each successive violation starts a new limitations period, but is actionable only within three years of its occurrence. The movie, Raging Bull, is based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, who, with Petrella, told his story in a screenplay copyrighted in 1963. In 1976 they assigned their rights and renewal rights to MGM. In 1980 MGM released, and registered a copyright in, Raging Bull. Petrella died during the initial copyright term, so renewal rights reverted to his daughter, who renewed the 1963 copyright in 1991. Seven years later, she advised MGM that it was violating her copyright. Nine years later she filed suit, seeking damages and injunctive relief for violations occurring after January 5, 2006. The district court dismissed, citing laches. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. Laches cannot bar a claim for damages brought within the three-year window. By permitting retrospective relief only three years back, the limitations period takes account of delay. Noting the “essentially gap-filling, not legislation-overriding,” nature of laches, the Court stated that it has never applied laches to entirely bar claims for discrete wrongs occurring within a federally prescribed limitations period. It is not incumbent on copyright owners to challenge every actionable infringement; there is nothing untoward about waiting to see whether a violation undercuts the value of the copyrighted work, has no effect, or even complements the work. The limitations period, with the separate-accrual rule, allows an owner to defer suit until she can estimate whether litigation is worth the effort. Because a plaintiff bears the burden of proof, evidence unavailability is as likely to affect plaintiffs as defendants. The Court noted that in some circumstances, the equitable defense of estoppel might limit remedies. Allowing this suit to proceed will put at risk only a fraction of what MGM has earned from Raging Bull and will work no unjust hardship on innocent third parties. Should Petrella prevail on the merits, the court may fashion a remedy taking account of the delay and MGM’s alleged reliance on that delay. View "Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc." on Justia Law

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Lexmark sells the only type of toner cartridges that work with its laser printers; remanufacturers acquire and refurbish used Lexmark cartridges to sell in competition with Lexmark’s new and refurbished cartridges. Lexmark’s “Prebate” program gives customers a discount on new cartridges if they agree to return empty cartridges to the company. Every Prebate cartridge has a microchip that disables the empty cartridge unless Lexmark replaces the chip. Static Control makes and sells components for cartridge remanufacture and developed a microchip that mimicked Lexmark’s. Lexmark sued for copyright infringement. Static Control counterclaimed that Lexmark engaged in false or misleading advertising under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1125(a), and caused Static Control lost sales and damage to its business reputation. The district court held that Static Control lacked “prudential standing,” applying a multifactor balancing test. The Sixth Circuit reversed, applying a “reasonable interest” test. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. The Court stated that the issue was not “prudential standing.” Whether a plaintiff comes within a statute’s zone of interests requires traditional statutory interpretation. The Lanham Act includes in its statement of purposes, “protect[ing] persons engaged in [commerce within the control of Congress] against unfair competition.” “Unfair competition” is concerned with injuries to business reputation and sales. A section 1125(a) plaintiff must show that its injury flows directly from the deception caused by the defendant’s advertising; that occurs when deception causes consumers to withhold trade from the plaintiff. The zone-of-interests test and the proximate-cause requirement identify who may sue under section 1125(a) and provide better guidance than the multi-factor balancing test, the direct-competitor test, or the reasonable-interest test. Static Control comes within the class of plaintiffs authorized to sue under section 1125(a). Its alleged injuries fall within the zone of interests protected by the Act, and it sufficiently alleged that its injuries were proximately caused by Lexmark’s misrepresentations. View "Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Copyright Act of 1976 gives a copyright owner the “exclusive righ[t]” to “perform the copyrighted work publicly,” 17 U.S.C. 106(4), including the right to “transmit or otherwise communicate ... the [copyrighted] work ... to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance ... receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times,” section 101. Aereo sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs over the Internet. Aereo’s server tunes an antenna, which is dedicated to the use of one subscriber, to the broadcast carrying the selected show. A transcoder translates the signals received by an antenna into data that can be transmitted over the Internet. A server saves the data in a subscriber-specific folder and streams the show to the subscriber, a few seconds behind the over-the-air broadcast. The owners of program copyrights unsuccessfully sought a preliminary injunction, arguing that Aereo was infringing their right to “perform” their copyrighted works “publicly.” The Second Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that Aereo performs the works within the meaning of section 101 and does not merely supply equipment that allows others to do so. The Court noted that the Act was amended in 1976 to make the law applicable to community antenna television (CATV) providers by clarifying that an entity that acts like a CATV system “performs,” even when it only enhances viewers’ ability to receive broadcast television signals. Aereo’s activities are similar; it sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs, many of which are copyrighted, virtually as they are being broadcast. That Aereo’s system remains inert until a subscriber indicates that she wants to watch a program is not critical. Aereo transmits a performance whenever its subscribers watch a program. The Court stated that when an entity communicates the same contemporaneously perceptible images and sounds to multiple people, it “transmit[s] ... a performance” to them, regardless of the number of discrete communications it makes and whether it makes an individual personal copy for each viewer. Aero subscribers are “the public” under the Act: a large number of people, unrelated and unknown to each other. View "Am. Broad. Cos. v. Aereo, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Copyright Act protects works published before 1978 for 28 years, renewable for up to 67 years, 17 U.S.C. 304(a). An author’s heirs inherit renewal rights. If an author who has assigned rights dies before the renewal period the assignee may continue to use the work only if the author’s successor transfers renewal rights to the assignee. The Act provides for injunctive relief and damages. Civil actions must be commenced within three years after the claim accrued-ordinarily when an infringing act occurred. Under the separate-accrual rule, each successive violation starts a new limitations period, but is actionable only within three years of its occurrence. The movie, Raging Bull, is based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, who, with Petrella, told his story in a screenplay copyrighted in 1963. In 1976 they assigned their rights and renewal rights to MGM. In 1980 MGM released, and registered a copyright in, Raging Bull. Petrella died during the initial copyright term, so renewal rights reverted to his daughter, who renewed the 1963 copyright in 1991. Seven years later, she advised MGM that it was violating her copyright. Nine years later she filed suit, seeking damages and injunctive relief for violations occurring after January 5, 2006. The district court dismissed, citing laches. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. Laches cannot bar a claim for damages brought within the three-year window. By permitting retrospective relief only three years back, the limitations period takes account of delay. Noting the “essentially gap-filling, not legislation-overriding,” nature of laches, the Court stated that it has never applied laches to entirely bar claims for discrete wrongs occurring within a federally prescribed limitations period. It is not incumbent on copyright owners to challenge every actionable infringement; there is nothing untoward about waiting to see whether a violation undercuts the value of the copyrighted work, has no effect, or even complements the work. The limitations period, with the separate-accrual rule, allows an owner to defer suit until she can estimate whether litigation is worth the effort. Because a plaintiff bears the burden of proof, evidence unavailability is as likely to affect plaintiffs as defendants. The Court noted that in some circumstances, the equitable defense of estoppel might limit remedies. Allowing this suit to proceed will put at risk only a fraction of what MGM has earned from Raging Bull and will work no unjust hardship on innocent third parties. Should Petrella prevail on the merits, the court may fashion a remedy taking account of the delay and MGM’s alleged reliance on that delay. View "Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc." on Justia Law

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Lexmark sells the only type of toner cartridges that work with its laser printers; remanufacturers acquire and refurbish used Lexmark cartridges to sell in competition with Lexmark’s new and refurbished cartridges. Lexmark’s “Prebate” program gives customers a discount on new cartridges if they agree to return empty cartridges to the company. Every Prebate cartridge has a microchip that disables the empty cartridge unless Lexmark replaces the chip. Static Control makes and sells components for cartridge remanufacture and developed a microchip that mimicked Lexmark’s. Lexmark sued for copyright infringement. Static Control counterclaimed that Lexmark engaged in false or misleading advertising under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1125(a), and caused Static Control lost sales and damage to its business reputation. The district court held that Static Control lacked “prudential standing,” applying a multifactor balancing test. The Sixth Circuit reversed, applying a “reasonable interest” test. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. The Court stated that the issue was not “prudential standing.” Whether a plaintiff comes within a statute’s zone of interests requires traditional statutory interpretation. The Lanham Act includes in its statement of purposes, “protect[ing] persons engaged in [commerce within the control of Congress] against unfair competition.” “Unfair competition” is concerned with injuries to business reputation and sales. A section 1125(a) plaintiff must show that its injury flows directly from the deception caused by the defendant’s advertising; that occurs when deception causes consumers to withhold trade from the plaintiff. The zone-of-interests test and the proximate-cause requirement identify who may sue under section 1125(a) and provide better guidance than the multi-factor balancing test, the direct-competitor test, or the reasonable-interest test. Static Control comes within the class of plaintiffs authorized to sue under section 1125(a). Its alleged injuries fall within the zone of interests protected by the Act, and it sufficiently alleged that its injuries were proximately caused by Lexmark’s misrepresentations. View "Lexmark Int'l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc." on Justia Law