How to Research a Supreme Court Case (to Excess)

Over the past decade I’ve researched and written about the history of a fair number of U.S. Supreme Court cases, mostly in the IP field. Over this time I’ve learned a fair bit about what resources are available, and also recently procrastinated a writing project and developed a research tool to make finding the case file number much quicker. All the places you can go (that I know of) to learn more about a case are below – and if there’s things I learn (or just forgot to mention) I’ll add to this as time goes on.

Note that all the steps below aren’t necessary in all cases, and there are often additional possible steps as well. This is meant as a general guide, not as an exhaustive one. Also, many of the steps outlined here can apply to State Supreme, State and Federal Appellate, and trial and administrative adjudications. There’s been so much digitized in the past two decades; the time required to take many of these steps is surprisingly minimal.

Read More

Mini-Post: A Brief and Notes of the Argument in Wheaton v. Peters via Justice Baldwin

I posted recently about Banks v. Manchester and Callaghan v. Myers, the two 1888 cases about copyright in judicial opinions. However, as I noted, the issue is anchored by the 1834 Supreme Court case of Wheaton v. Peters, the first copyright case the Court took, and the wellspring of law regarding the uncopyrightability of legal opinions. With oral argument in Georgia v. Public Resource on the horizon, I wanted to share some more of my findings regarding Wheaton. Read More


Copyright in State Legal Materials – Looking Back to 1888

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear argument in Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org Inc. in about two months, with petitioner’s briefs already in, and respondent’s briefs were submitted yesterday.  The question presented is fairly simple and a matter of law – “Whether the government edicts doctrine [(that they are not protectable by copyright)] extends to—and thus renders uncopyrightable—works that lack the force of law, such as the annotations in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated.”

As the 11th Circuit noted below, in holding that the annotations could not be protected by copyright, the Supreme Court addressed this question three times in the nineteenth century, but not since.  Those three cases will be what the Supreme Court will be basing its decision on, but two of them are quite obscure.  So as not to bury the lede, the archival contribution of this post is that I’ve scanned the briefs from one of these cases – Banks v. Manchester – and shared them online (the other two were already available)- you can access them here.  I also scanned the case file from the U.S. National Archives, comprising mainly correspondence between the parties and the Court – you can download the PDF here. Read More


Video Post: Irwin Karp on Drafting the 1976 Copyright Act

While everyone eagerly awaits the next full post here, I wanted to share a video I found of Irwin Karp, “legendary and curmudgeonly counsel for the Authors Guild and Authors League,”1 talking about the process of drafting and negotiating what would become the 1976 Copyright Act. There’s extensive discussion in particular about the fair use provisions at what would become 17 USC 107, and the lack of a general exception for educational purposes. Digitization by Library of Congress Motion Picture Division.


Fifty-Five Years of Software Copyright

Greetings from INTA 2019 in Boston! It’s been a few months since a post, entirely my own fault of course, but today is a good day to bring readers something new – the Copyright Office announced 55 years ago today (May 19, 1964) that they would begin accepting registrations of software copyrights. This was of course an enormously consequential decision, and while it has been written about before, as far as I know a proper history of the era has yet to be written (Pam Samuelson’s article The Uneasy Case for Software Copyrights Revisited has a lot of useful material on the subject though). As such, I thought I’d provide a few aspects of the early story of software copyrights that some may not be aware of.

Read More

An Archive of Patent Office Rules and Procedures

This isn’t really meant as a traditional post, but I’ve noticed that there isn’t one organized place to view older versions of the pamphlet issued by the Patent Office providing rules and procedures for filing patents and other interactions with the Patent Office. These rules are now housed within the CFR, and the Patent Office is now the USPTO, but it’s still useful to understand the rules for filing a patent when looking at an old patent. The bulk of these are from Hathitrust, but I’ve gone to the Library of Congress and elsewhere to digitize many of the older sets of rules not available online anywhere, in an effort to create a complete resource for people interested in the subject. This resource goes in hand with the list of copyright rules manuals I’ve previously posted.

Read More

INS v. AP at 100 – feat. the oral argument

On December 23, 1918, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in International News Service v. Associated Press, reported at
248 U.S. 215. The case involved the Hearst-owned International News Service, which had been barred from the front in World War 1 for what was perceived as unduly sympathetic reporting on the enemy. However, INS continued providing its news to west coast papers by reading stories from east papers served by the rival Associated Press and wiring their own rewritten stories cross-country. Although the war was over by December 1918, the broader implications of the legal claims lingered, and the Supreme Court held that copying of news stories was unfair competition even if there was no copyright infringement (since the stories were all fresh rewrites and only the facts were being copied). Justices Holmes and Brandeis both dissented.

The story of this case has been told before, most notably by Douglas Baird in his contribution to Intellectual Property Stories. However, what I believe will become the new standard history of this case, and of the many issues of legal protections for news more generally, is an upcoming book by Will Slauter, entitled “Who Owns the News,” coming out next month from Stanford University Press. I’ve copied the description of the book below, and I believe it will be mandatory reading for anyone who would be so moved to check out this blog.

You can’t copyright facts, but is news a category unto itself? Without legal protection for the “ownership” of news, what incentive does a news organization have to invest in producing quality journalism that serves the public good? This book explores the intertwined histories of journalism and copyright law in the United States and Great Britain, revealing how shifts in technology, government policy, and publishing strategy have shaped the media landscape.

Publishers have long sought to treat news as exclusive to protect their investments against copying or “free riding.” But over the centuries, arguments about the vital role of newspapers and the need for information to circulate have made it difficult to defend property rights in news. Beginning with the earliest printed news publications and ending with the Internet, Will Slauter traces these countervailing trends, offering a fresh perspective on debates about copyright and efforts to control the flow of news.

Book Page at Stanford University Press

As part of his research for his book, Will located the transcript of the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court a hundred years ago in the archives of the Associated Press. He’s graciously allowed me to share the transcript here, part of my project of locating pre-1955 transcripts of U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments. It’s fascinating to see the argument, which is very different from the style today – the advocates speak much more – and the justices ask many fewer questions. As far as I’m aware, almost no-one has been aware of the existence of this document, and it almost certainly hasn’t been shared before. Enjoy!


Thomasville v. Kaminstein – Copyright in Furniture

Recently, Brian Frye posted a picture to Instagram of a piece of furniture with a 1959 copyright notice.  I found this interesting but not entirely surprising, as Mazer v. Stein had come down a few years earlier and companies were presumably testing the boundaries of conceptual severability and design protection

I tried searching for the registration in the Catalog of Copyright Entries to no avail, but did find a tidbit in the Annual Report of the Register of Copyrights for 1969:

An action for declaratory judgment and
mandatory registration was filed on August 7,
1968, against the Register of Copyrights, in
the U.S. District Court for the District of
Columbia The suit, Thomasville Furniture
Industries, Inc. v. Kaminstein, Civil Action
No. 1959-68, concerned eight applications for
registration of claims to copyright in three-dimensional
designs applied to articles of furniture.
The Copyright Office had rejected the
claims on the grounds that the works revealed
nothing identifiable as “a work of art” within
the meaning of the copyright law. On September
26 the Department of Justice, on behalf
of the Register, filed an answer. On January 3,
1969, the case was brought to a close when the
plaintiff fled a stipulation dismissing the case
with prejudice.

With knowledge of the case in hand, I was able to get the case file from the National Archives.  It’s fairly short at 20 pages, and the interesting parts are the complaint and answer – and especially the copy of the letter denying the copyright registration.  In short, the Copyright Office held that a design for furniture was not copyrightable.  For this interested, I believe this is the Thomasville Allegro Desk that was among the eight Thomasville sought to register for copyright.  After the answer was filed Thomasville voluntarily dismissed the case, so no adjudication was ever made by the court.

In recent years there’s been a drift away from this position, as this article from INTA exemplifies.  The Star Athletica decision has been taken as further evidence of a shift to allowing copyright to protect design.  I try to avoid saying which approach is correct here, but I do think the progression of the law is interesting.

One interesting wrinkle – the copyright notice Brian found says 1959, but the denied registration and appeal were in 1968 – is it possible that in 1959 they applied a copyright notice but hadn’t filed the registration application, and the furniture in this photo wasn’t strictly related to the 1968 action?


Archival Adventures: Saving ASCAP’s Library

As folks who follow this blog know, I’ve been engaged in a semi-successful effort to track down transcripts of Supreme Court oral arguments related to IP from before they started recording audio in OT 1955.  One organization that I figured would have a couple of such transcripts, including from the foundational 1917 case of Herbert v. Shanley, was the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, or ASCAP.

The invaluable Dean Kay, author of the Dean’s List email many of you already receive daily, brokered the connection with ASCAP’s Senior VP Richard Reimer, who informed me that ASCAP was moving offices shortly, and I should move fast.  Upon arriving at ASCAP’s (former) offices, it was made clear to me that they wouldn’t have room for their library in their new offices, and it needed a new home.  About half the books were already boxed up, and I boxed up about 10 more boxes, loaded everything into the car, and drove it down to the Jacob Burns Library at the George Washington University School of Law, where I’d arranged for the books to join the collection.  The Law Library put up a nice piece about the collection here.

At first glance, one volume of particular interest to the broader public is the one related to Nathan Burkan’s defense of Mae West on charges of obscenity related to her play The Pleasure Man.  There’s a nice writeup of the story here, which I won’t repeat.  However, I have scanned the entire section of the book related to the Mae West and put it online (I didn’t scan the rest, dealing with People v. Joseph Flinn – there’s only so many hours in the day).  It’s available here, and it includes legal arguments about cross-dressing not being obscene as well as a complete draft affidavit for Mae West’s signature detailing the entire history of the production.

Below the jump I’ve included a list of the cases which have papers included in the ASCAP collection now at the GW Law Library.  This list is not complete and is just meant to help those looking for information on a particular case.

Read More