Remembering the Washingtonian Case

This coming term, the Supreme Court will hear Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, regarding whether a party has standing to sue upon application for copyright, or whether a party must wait for the Copyright Office to register (or reject) their application.  The Supreme Court only occasionally wades into this realm of technical copyright registration issues, and one of the last times the Supreme Court did so in earnest was in the 1939 case of Washingtonian Publishing Co. v. Pearson et al, where a divided court held that a 13 month delay between publication and registration did not invalidate the copyright in the work.  Although the issue is not the same in Fourth Estate, the issues are sufficiently adjacent (and issues of this ilk come before the Court so rarely), it’s unsurprising that Washingtonian v. Pearson is among the most-cited cases in Petitioner’s brief that was filed last month.

While serving as Abraham L. Kaminstein Scholar in Residence at the Copyright Office two years ago, I noticed that the Office has a bound volume of documents from the Washingtonian case, and that the transcript of record from the case available on microfilm and online from Gale includes fewer documents.  I’ve uploaded what I’m calling a “complete” casefile for Washingtonian v. Pearson, including documents from subsequent proceedings in the case after the Supreme Court remanded it.  Several years later the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the damages award of the District Court in the amount of $15.46 (plus a worthless judgment against a bankrupt publisher), a number Washingtonian Publishing was none too pleased with, marking an anticlimax to the case.

As well as these documents, I’ve uploaded the testimony from the case following remand, which is to me the most interesting thing I found.  It includes the testimony of Drew Pearson, the defendant in this case, and longtime author of the “Washington Merry-go-Round” column.  From the testimony the broader context of the case becomes more clear – the Washingtonian magazine was owned by the still-famous Mayflower Hotel, which in 1931 declared bankruptcy.  This is why the issues of Washingtonian in question were not registered – they apparently kept publishing, but no funds were available to cover the registrations.  The shadow of the Depression hangs over this case – the corporate defendant Liveright Publishing filed for bankruptcy as well during this time.  It is doubtful that the litigation costs were terribly welcome by any of the parties to this case.

Finally, I’ve uploaded a selection of pleadings from the case that I don’t believe made their way into the transcript of record.  These include a motion to dismiss the case, a motion to strike parts of the defendant’s answer (those focusing on ownership of copyright, or lack thereof), and a motion for rehearing by the plaintiff.  Unlike the previous documents these do share parts of the argument over the issue of copyright formalities, but I don’t know if they actually add new information about the case and its reasoning/argument.

I had hoped to find a transcript of the oral argument from this case to add to my collection, but no such document was in the archives.  It might still exist, but I don’t know where it would be in this case.

Video Post: A 1992 Hearing on Copyright in Legal Compilations

One interesting thing about case reporters is that even though the text of reported cases themselves been denied copyright protection by the courts, going all the way back to 1834 in Wheaton v. Peters, case reports have been consistently registered for copyright.  In the latter part of the 1980s, Mead (the service now known as Lexis) introduced star pagination, allowing a reader to identify when a new page began in the printed reporter, which was published by West.  West Publishing sued, and in 1986 the 8th Circuit held that West had shown a likelihood of success that the Mead star pagination feature infringed their copyrights in page numbers, in other words the selection and arrangement of the case text.

In 1988 the parties settled, but concerns lingered about the applicability of copyright to law reporters and other legal compilations.  This was amplified by the 1991 Supreme Court decision in Feist v. Rural Telephone, which cast the holding of the 8th Circuit in the Mead case into some doubt.  In Congress a bill was introduced to make clear that page numbers in legal compilations could not be protected by copyright.  Thus a Congressional hearing was held on May 14th, 1992, before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, to discuss the issue of whether copyright should protect such things as page numbers.  The text of this hearing has long been available, but I think it’s much more interesting on video, and in some cases it illuminates the content of the hearing as well.  I’ve included the video below.

Robert Fulton’s 1811 Steamboat Patent – Lost and Found

Robert Fulton is generally remembered as the inventor of the steamboat.  There is some controversy over his debts to previous inventors, but Fulton was the one able to develop a steamboat which was commercially successful, and which led to the rise of steamboat transit.  I hadn’t thought about it much, but his patent in his steamboat is one of the key documents in the history of American invention and technology.  That changed a bit ago when Adam Mossoff tweeted this out about how the patents Robert Fulton took out in his famous steamboat were lost, and I couldn’t just leave it be.

Perhaps nothing gets my attention more than saying that something is “lost,” so I had to look into it.  It turns out that the patents are less lost than has commonly been assumed.  Continue reading “Robert Fulton’s 1811 Steamboat Patent – Lost and Found”

All the Forgotten IP Cases, Where Do they All Come From…

Two years ago last month, I was reading the trial court opinion from White-Smith v. Apollo from 1905 (the player piano case), and I noticed a cite to a 1878 Supreme Court case I hadn’t heard of before, Perris v. Hexamer.  I gave the decision a read and found that it was about the copyrightability – or rather lack of copyrightability – of using specific colors and shapes to denote features on a map, where the alleged infringing map was of a different city (and thus obviously not copied).  At this time I was about to close out a year as the Abraham L. Kaminstein Scholar in Residence at the U.S. Copyright Office, and I was a bit loathe to admit that I’d never even heard of a Supreme Court case on copyrightability.  So, instead, I asked the coterie of IP professors I’m friends with on Facebook “why don’t people talk about Perris v. Hexamer more?” (the story continues after the jump)

Continue reading “All the Forgotten IP Cases, Where Do they All Come From…”

Video Post: Waldo Moore on the History of the Copyright Office

Below is a video recorded at the U.S. Copyright Office in early 1987, at an event for staff, where Waldo Moore, who had been at the Office since 1951, provided some history of the Copyright Office, and discussed some of the individuals who had held the position of Register of Copyrights.  Moore retired the year before he gave this talk, and William Patry has a nice piece about him on his now-defunct blog.  Much of the material Moore includes in his talk has, to my knowledge, not been published.

I will caution, for those seeking details on recent events, the Moore is quite circumspect about events from 1970 on, preferring to speak about earlier eras.  Looming in the background of the talk was George Cary’s appointment as Register in 1971, which led Barbara Ringer to sue and that appointment to be vacated, at which point George Cary retired and Barbara Ringer was named Register.  George Cary is specifically mentioned as being in the audience for this talk, which would make discussion of the controversy impolitic (it probably would have been even without him in the room).

The Supreme Court’s Docket Books and Three Strands of 19th Century Copyright Jurisprudence

This post brings together two separate but related topics – a relatively unknown resource about the Supreme Court, and light it shines on what I think were the main schools of thought on copyright in the late nineteenth century.  Read on for more, including original scans of archival material.

Continue reading “The Supreme Court’s Docket Books and Three Strands of 19th Century Copyright Jurisprudence”

Opinions of the US Supreme Court – Does Word Count Correlate to Citations?

As part of a symposium on forgotten cases in intellectual property with the Syracuse Law Review, I recently wrote a short history of the US Supreme Court’s 1879 decision in Perris v. Hexamer, entitled How Perris V. Hexamer Was Lost in the Shadow of Baker V. Selden.  Perris is essentially forgotten today, but it has somewhat similar facts and holding to Baker v. Selden, decided the following year.  The decision is less than 1,000 words, so it’s pretty easy to give it a read, but essentially the Court held that the legend/key to a fire map showing what different symbols meant was not protected by copyright, and that using the same colors and symbols as a competitor’s map did not constitute infringement either.  In some ways this decision is even more relevant than Baker (concerning the copyrightability of accounting ledgers) to the copyright questions raised in cases like Google v. Oracle, among others.  However, Baker keeps being cited (hundreds of times in the past few decades alone), while a citation in 2016 by the 9th Circuit was the first citation to Perris in 3+ decades.  I wanted to figure out why.  Given that Perris is a fairly short opinion and Baker is an average-length opinion, I figured perhaps just the length of the opinion led Perris to be ignored, as presumably other short opinions would be ignored.

This question naturally led me to try to answer a broader question than I actually needed to.  I assumed that there must be public databases out there of the number of words in an opinion, along with the number of citations to that opinion.  However, while there has been some scholarship on the question, no public database of this sort exists.1  Accordingly, with help from my law school classmate Corey Mathers, I decided to try to assemble it.  Paid databases like Westlaw and Lexis were not options, but the website Courtlistener.com (a project of the Free Law Project) does have the entire US Reports, along with citation tracking.  Accordingly, we decided to build our database from that site.

Accordingly, our data is here (zipped CSV), with data on every Supreme Court decision, including word count, number of citations to authority in the opinion, and number of citations to the opinion (as well as caption and year).  We removed cases that have less than 200 words, which are typically not real decisions but are rather summary orders like grants of certiorari.

However, the data has some weaknesses, and should really be considered more of a first step than a definitive resource.  By far the most significant weakness stems from the holdings of Courtlistener – while it has many recent decisions and all Supreme Court decisions, it is missing most caselaw from before 1950 or so.  Accordingly this creates a bias in favor of more recent cases, but at least the bias is uniform across all cases.  Ideally the data could be recreated from a database with more decisions.  Also, the word count for pre-1880 decisions frequently includes lengthy arguments of counsel as well as the actual decisions.  There are several other smaller issues as well, all of which could be resolved by re-running the query we ran on a database with full coverage of federal and state decisions.

Usually these posts have been a chunk of information, but this one is really more open-ended, since I know the data we created is deeply incomplete – it was acceptable for purposes of my paper but could be improved.  What would be good next steps for developing the data?  What other data should we be trying to generate (only data that can be done automatically, nothing that would require manual review beyond error-checking)?

  1. There is the Supreme Court Database, which has extensive information on cases, and is of special interest to political scientists and legal historians.  However, it does not contain this information.

Archival Adventures: The First Louisiana Copyright

As folks to this blog likely noticed, I engaged in a project to bring together all pre-1870 copyright records, which culminated in a post earlier this year. As part of that project I was able to find a few records from Louisiana from 1837 and 1838. These were located in the National Archives Regional Division at Ft. Worth, but I wasn’t able to actually go there myself to see if there were any more. So when I had a chance to go to Ft. Worth to present at the IP Scholars Roundtable in October, I figured it would be a chance to double check the record books myself and see if there were more copyrights there.

Aside from the 1837-1838 records I found last year and a single registration held by the Library of Congress from 1835, there were known no copyright records from before 1851. This is a major gap in the records since New Orleans was a major city from the Louisiana Purchase onwards, and the copyright records would be a useful source for understanding the legal and cultural milieu of the time. In fact, aside from possibly Maryland, where the copyright records for the state are missing from before 1831, this is likely the largest gap in the pre-1870 copyright records.1

So, I went to the Archives, and decided to photograph the record books for the pre-1851 time period as well as looking through them (recall that the Library of Congress has copyright records for the federal court in New Orleans for 1851 on.  I figured I might find more than the student who looked at the books originally had found.  The National Archives catalog entry says that the series of record books is case papers, copyrights, and appointments, but in reality it’s mostly bonds and such documents related to pending litigation.  I’ve uploaded my scans the two volumes to The Internet Archive, and everyone is free to look themselves, but there are no copyright records for years other than 1837 and 1838.

However, I realized that the copyright records had to be somewhere, and I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to be in Ft. Worth again for a while.  Accordingly, I decided to look at the Minute Books of the Louisiana District Court on microfilm, which is where I found this:

1810 Copyright Registration for a City Directory of New Orleans from the District Court’s Minutes

It’s a little difficult to read, but this indicates that on October 11, 1810, Thomas H. White registered a book for copyright entitled “New Orleans & Natchez Directory and Louisiana Almanac.”  I’ve also included a link to the introduction to the microfilm and a reproduction of the complete page containing this registration here.  The volume has a mark on the first page indicating that there is a copyright registration on page 257, along with a few other indications of highlights in the volume but no other mentions of copyrights, strongly suggesting that this was the first copyright in Louisiana.

I haven’t taken the time to go through the remainder of the minute books on microfilm, which would be extremely laborious, but this at least suggests that there may be more copyright records there, pointing to a resolution for where at least some of the missing records are.  It’s also instructive for the “lost” records from the early Republic, suggesting that just because we don’t know where they are, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily lost forever.

  1. Another contender for largest gap is Virginia, but even though the original records from Richmond are missing until the 1860s, a transcription exists for 1790-1844, and the “second set” of records held in the Library of Congress should cover much the rest of the gap until the Civil War.  The question of how that early transcription is made is an interesting one, but it might be too esoteric even for a blog post unless I can bundle it with a discovery or two.

Another Season, Another Common-Law Copyright Opinion

To be clear, this is my opinion only, and the views expressed in this post, and indeed this blog, should not be imputed or otherwise associated with anyone else.

This one from the Supreme Court of Florida, finding that Florida common law does does not recognize an exclusive right of public performers for the holders of common-law copyrights in sound recordings made before February 15, 1972.  The 11th Circuit certified a series of questions to the Florida Supreme Court, namely:

  1. Whether Florida recognizes common law copyright in sound recordings and, if so, whether that copyright includes the exclusive right of reproduction and/or the exclusive right of public performance?
  2. To the extent that Florida recognizes common law copyright in sound recordings, whether the sale and distribution of phonorecords to the public or the public performance thereof constitutes a publication for the purpose of divesting the common law copyright protections in sound recordings embedded in the phonorecord and, if so whether the divestment terminates either or both of the exclusive right of public performance and the exclusive right of reproduction?
  3. To the extent that Florida recognizes a common law copyright including a right of exclusive reproduction in sound recordings, whether Sirius’s back-up or buffer copies infringe Flo & Eddie’s common law copyright exclusive right of reproduction?
  4. To the extent that Florida does not recognize a common law copyright in sound recordings, or to the extent that such a copyright was terminated by publication, whether Flo & Eddie nevertheless has a cause of action for common law unfair competition / misappropriation, common law conversion, or statutory civil theft under FLA. STAT. § 772.11 and FLA. STAT. § 812.014?

Instead of addressing these questions, the Court chose to address a reformulated question of its own, “Does Florida common law recognize the exclusive right of public performance in pre-1972 sound recordings?”  The obvious problem with this is that it fails to address whether pre-72 sound recordings are protected under Florida law more generally.  The Court notes (pp. 19-20) that Florida criminal law provides penalties against commercial bootleggers of sound recordings, but those criminal provisions do not impact a range of activity including noncommercial infringement.

This could be excused as judicial minimalism if it wasn’t central to the case – Flo & Eddie sued in Florida specifically because SiriusXM has servers there, and alleged that copying was ongoing on those servers in violation of their exclusive right of reproduction.  The Court later in the opinion reasoned that because the criminal statute exempts copying made in the course of “as part of a radio, television or cable broadcast transmission,” so the copying would not trigger civil liability under common-law copyright, regardless of whether any such rights exist.  But of course this analysis doesn’t properly follow – whether certain actions do not give rise to criminal liability does not mean the same actions give rise to civil liability.  One only need to look at federal copyright law (or, indeed, nearly any body of law) for ample demonstration of this – most conduct which gives rise to a civil claim for infringement does not give rise to a criminal claim for the same conduct.

So, in revising the question formulating by the Circuit Court to one it preferred, the Florida Supreme Court effectively ignored one of the main claims being brought by Flo & Eddie.  However, I believe the Court’s reasoning on the performance rights claim is problematic as well.  One key part of the Court’s analysis is that finding performance rights would upset settled expectations and cause wide-ranging impacts not expected by the statute.  Regardless of whether this is true, 1 the Court relies on a second argument as well.  The Court notes that Congress extended federal copyright protection to sound recordings in 1972, but in the same breath denied them performance rights.  The Court thus reasons that Congress could not have intended to take away rights that existed, and thus performance rights must not have existed before that time as well.

The problem with this analysis is that Congress clearly was taking away performance rights, at least for sound recordings from Pennsylvania, where a performance right had existed at common law since the decision of that state’s Supreme Court in the 1937 Waring v. WDAS decision.2  And by the evidence, this was a tradeoff sound recording rightsholders were fine with at the time – the right to federal remedies against bootleggers of recorded music was worth far more than a right in some states to demand royalties for sound recording performance.  This is especially true because record companies did not want to imperial radio airplays by demanding additional royalties at the time.

Regardless, Florida is unlikely to revisit this decision anytime soon.  California is the next stop, where the same issue is now being briefed before that state’s Supreme Court.

  1. I’m skeptical that the Flo & Eddie cases would actually have such an effect since they’re only aimed at services that already pay royalties for sound recordings, and indeed Flo & Eddie and SiriusXM reached a settlement that would resolve the issue, but that’s another story.  By contrast, I do think the ABS series of cases, targeting terrestrial radio stations, may raise broader concerns, regardless of the legal merits.
  2. Whether New York recognized such a right was unclear in 1972 – the 1940 RCA v. Whiteman decision had said no, but in 1955 the same Court (the 2nd Circuit) found that decision to be overruled.  Three states including Florida had expressly abrogated the performance right by statute, and as far as I’m aware 45 states had no precedential decisions or laws on the topic.

Blogiversary, Mark 1: Looking Forward

It’s hard to believe that today marks the one-year anniversary of when I first posted to this blog in earnest (I started it a few months earlier but hadn’t posted anything beyond a “hello world” post). In the process I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many people are interested in what is surely one of the more esoteric blogs about intellectual property law out there.

I have an awful lot in the backlog of stuff to share, including a lot of tidbits about sound recording copyright and the White-Smith decision, as well as a post I really should get out soon on Copyright and the 11th Amendment/Sovereign Immunity.  However, the biggest project I’m working on is an empirical project, bringing together statistics of copyright in America from 1790 through 2015.  Here’s a teaser of what I’m working on (with my coauthor Richard Schwinn, an economist):

All Registrations per capita

This chart shows the number of copyright registrations made, per 100,000 people, per year, with the color of the line representing the cost of registration adjusted for inflation.  This is only the tip of the iceberg – the statistics I’ve assembled are broken down for the type of work for 1870 to the present, and I have rates of renewal for 1909-2005 as well for all classes.  A paper that hopefully lays it out all is in the works.  Here’s to another great blog-year.