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.

The Forgotten Origins of Copyright for Photographs

It’s fairly well-known that photographers like Matthew Brady used photographs in unique and important ways during the Civil War to document the conflict like never before.  It’s also known among copyright nerds that 1865 saw not just the end of the Civil War, but the amendment of the federal copyright statute to include photographs.  However, the conventional narrative of this law has always been that the amendment to the law to include photographs was close to a bolt from the blue.  As William Patry puts it:

This Act had a remarkably short legislative history. On February 22, 1865, the Committee on Patents and the Patent Office, which had been studying the issue, reported S.468, which was passed by the Senate the same day. The House passed the bill on March 2, and President Lincoln signed it into law the next day.

Source (internal citations/quotations omitted).  The law is one of Abraham Lincoln’s two main accomplishments on copyright, the other being his appointment of Ainsworth Spofford to be the Librarian of Congress in the same year.  However, the legislative history of the law was longer than has currently been understood, as a bill to include photographs within copyright law had actually been introduced in the House the previous year by Thomas A. Jenckes and committed to that chamber’s Committee on Patents.  However, for reasons that are unclear the House did not order the Bill printed, and as a result it has been all but forgotten until I found a manuscript copy of the bill in the Congressional files at the National Archives.

Finding the bill was a bit of a fluke – when I was writing my article on the origin of performance rights for music in 1897, I went through Thorvald Solberg’s work Copyright in Congress, 1789-1904, in search of any previous bills to provide such performance rights. What I found is that for a number of bills, he describes copyright bills, but provides no details as to the content of the bill.  The Library of Congress’s American Memory – A Century of Lawmaking site does not have a copy of the bill (House Bill 505 from the 38th Congress), so I (perhaps excessively) checked the files of the Committee at the National Archives.  Sure enough, there’s a handwritten copy there.  My scan of the bill is here, and I’ve included a transcription below the jump.

The act that would be passed in 1865 to include photographs in copyright is extremely terse, stating that  the provisions of the copyright law “shall extend to and include photographs and the negatives thereof which shall hereafter be made, and shall enure [sic] to the benefit of the authors of the same in the same manner, and to the same extent, and upon the same conditions as to the authors of prints and engravings.”1  On the other hand, the bill introduced by Jenckes in 1864 created a whole mechanism for deposit of a “memorandum” describing the photograph with the clerk of the District Court (since copyright registration was still at the District Courts until 1870).  Also included, seemingly added later, were two final sections establishing limited trademark protection for the marks of photographers (six years before the first law providing for federal trademark protection).

I don’t currently know the connection between the 1864 Jenckes Bill in the House and the bill a year later in the Senate which became law, but the introduction of the Jenckes Bill gives an explanation of how Congress moved so quickly on the issues – even if the public record doesn’t make it clear, the House Committee on Patents had been considering a bill to include photographs within copyright since the previous session of Congress.  There’s probably the necessary information to link these bills in the Papers of Thomas A. Jenckes; one of these days I hope to be able to tell the whole story.  But in the interim, this seemed a nugget of information worth sharing.  The bill text follows below the jump.

Continue reading “The Forgotten Origins of Copyright for Photographs”

  1. the 1865 Act then includes several paragraphs reestablishing the requirement of copyright deposit with the Library of Congress, a requirement which has been retained ever since

Mini-Post: 1947 Copyright Office Report on Editing Music

It’s been too long since I made a proper post – I’ve been busy putting together a piece I’m calling An Empirical Study of 225 Years of American Copyright Registrations (title subject to change, natch), which I fully expect to be the bees knees, all while being no bigger than a breadbox. But there’s still a lot I want to share, and this seems as good a time as any to share a report the US Copyright Office issued in 1947 which has been almost completely forgotten.

Until 1947, the US Copyright Office would not register editions of public-domain music for copyright.  Obviously the music could not be reinserted to copyright protection, but the Office held that merely editing public-domain music was insufficient for copyright protection.  However, in that year the Office issued a report (link to my scans) that gave the history of Office rules for registration of music, and an argument for how they should be changed to include edited versions of public-domain works.  The Office changed its position based on this report and allowed such editions of music to be registered for copyright.  The Office had distributed the report to interested outside parties, and copies are available at a number of law libraries, but I haven’t seen it online.

The issue of whether editions of public domain music are nonetheless protected was litigated in England in the Hyperion Records case, involving a small classical music label in a suit by a scholar over his editions of the music of an early 18th century composer.  However, I think the discussions in the report are illuminating for discussing the scope of music copyright protection and infringement more generally, something Joe Fischman also discusses in his upcoming article Music as a Matter of Law, and I of course discuss in my upcoming article Common-Law Copyright (never miss an opportunity to plug one’s own work).

Property in Copyright – Examining The Ingersoll Copyright Bill of 1844

I’m not pushing a normative argument with this post, I just think it’s useful to understand how some of the debates over copyright have evolved – or not – over 200 years.  Some parts of this article are expanded upon much further in my article The Twilight of the Opera Pirates, which tells the history of the origins of performance rights for music, but I wanted to focus on a different aspect of the Ingersoll Bill than that article looked at.

A question people love to hash out in the public discussions of copyright is whether copyright is a property right.  Of course the question is a little misleading, because copyright is obviously at least a form of property, but what people are really debating is whether copyright is substantially equal to real property in the deference given by the law and society.  These debates are typically accompanied by calls to history, but these are typically given in a general sense without reference to specific incidents.  In the nineteenth century the vast majority of references to property rights in copyright in the records of Congress are in respect to the lengthy fight for international copyright protection, which did not culminate until 1891.  However, the Ingersoll Copyright Bill, introduced in 1844 and quickly disappearing, is the exception, and provides I think an interesting window into what people thought about copyright at the time.

At the beginning of 1844, Charles Jared Ingersoll, a Democratic Congressman from Philiadelphia, who also had a career as a lawyer, orator, and playwright, introduced a copyright bill.[His plays included Edwy and Elgiva and Julian, and his widely circulated Discourse Concerning the Influence of America on the Mind included a discussion of copyright law as well.] This bill was intended as a complete revision of copyright law, and was generally far ahead of its time.  Amendments Ingersoll added two weeks later further modernized his bill, adding performance rights as well as a system of design protection.  However, Section 15 of the bill contained a clause that I haven’t seen in other copyright legislation, at least not phrased this way:

[A]ll copyright shall be deemed personal property, and shall be transmissible by bequest, or, in case of intestacy, shall be subject of the same law of distribution as other personal property.

This clause is obviously aimed partially at insuring that copyrights can be transmitted to heirs, but there’s also a clear intent to assert that copyright is a form of property.  Indeed, reading over the bill and amendments, assertions that copyright is a property right are all over the bill – in stark contrast to the then-in-force 1831 Act, which does not use the word “property” once.

After being introduced the bill was referred to a Select Committee, where it failed to go anywhere.  However, luckily, one of the members of this Select Committee was an elderly John Quincy Adams, still keeping his daily diary.  Ingersoll and Adams were fierce opponents on issues of the gag rule and slavery, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Adams was less than enamored of Ingersoll’s proposal.  When the subject was first broached, Adams noted in his diary that he “offered some suggestions as to the natural right of literary property, to the principles of which, as entertained by me, Ingersoll immediately declared his dissent. His principles are radically depraved, and never can harmonize with mine.”  A month later the bill was discussed again, leading Adams to describe the bill as “an entire but most incongruous system of copyright property, fit for nothing but to multiply litigation.”

It’s of course impossible to know exactly what Adams was referring to, but the property aspects of the Ingersoll bill seem like the obvious answer (although in fairness the bill is sprawling and pointing to any one aspect is difficult).  That said, the very fact that the Ingersoll bill needed to state that copyright is a property right is suggestive that this was not uniformly agreed on.1

An illustrated of the debate as to whether copyright is on par with real property was illustrated in a Senate Report from six years earlier on international copyright, where the Senate Committee on Patents wrote that

The committee do not deem it necessary to argue the question, which has been so much discussed, whether an author has a property in his written and published productions, by natural right, which society is bound to protect. It will, perhaps, be sufficient to admit, that in most cases there will be found equitable considerations, constituting strong claims for aid and protection in some form, to those from whose intellectual labors mankind derive a benefit. Partly with reference to such considerations of justice to authors, and partly with it view to the advancement of literature and science, all civilized nations have established copyright laws.

In the end the Select Committee on the Ingersoll Bill focused on issues of international copyright instead, including a memorial from Nahum Capen, Miscellaneous Memorials on the issue of international copyright from around the country (my scans from the National Archives, 2 MB), as well as a Memorial from John Jay, presumably a son of the former Chief Justice (my scan from the National Archives, 2 MB).  These all concerned the recently failed effort for international copyright from the late 1830s, not the question of property in copyright.

One of these days I want to write a proper account of the history of copyright in America from 1789 to 1909, and one of the strands I want to show is that the triumph of international copyright in 1891 also represented a triumph of a property model of copyright, which was then codified by the 1909 Act.  In the 1840s the issue was still much more equivocal.  As Justin Hughes has demonstrated, the term “literary property” was already in wide use by authors and advocates of international copyright.  However, the term “property” was assiduously avoided by others, including the pirate press and opponents of international copyright.  In a way, it seems like little about the debate has changed in some 170 years, but the law itself clearly has.

  1. Of course, the counterargument is that it went without saying in previous bills.

Tam, The First Amendment, and Copyright

Last week the Supreme Court decided the case about the Constitutionality of the clause of federal trademark law excluding from registration disparaging, scandalous, or immoral marks, and found this clause to be unconstitutional. Part of the reasoning at both the Circuit Court level and the Supreme Court level was that such a rule would be obviously unconstitutional vis a vis copyrights, and there is no good way to develop a rule that distinguishes copyrights from trademarks in this context. I’ve been telling people informally that the history of copyright registration is actually a lot more complicated, and that I should write an article explaining this. But in the interim, in the interest of getting the information out there, I’ve put the basic information in a blog post.

In rejecting the argument that trademark registration is government speech, and thus excluded from the protection of the First Amendment, Justice Alito’s opinion states the following (Slip Op. at 21-22)

For if the registration of trademarks constituted government speech, other systems of government registration could easily be characterized in the same way.

Perhaps the most worrisome implication of the Government’s argument concerns the system of copyright registration. If federal registration makes a trademark government speech and thus eliminates all First Amendment protection, would the registration of the copyright for a book produce a similar transformation?

The Federal Circuit’s opinion is much lengthier, and explores this issue in greater detail.  This attitude is unsurprising, as nowadays the Copyright Office registers essentially anything.  Indeed, the most frequent copyright litigant, by far, is a pornographer.  However, copyright’s content neutrality has only been well established since fairly recently, and in the past the Copyright Office has denied registration – and Courts have found works uncopyrightable – driven by both legal concerns such as obscenity as well as more amorphous concerns like immorality.

As William Patry notes in a post about this question in 2005, the trial court in Bleistein held that a “picture which represents a dozen or more figures of women in tights, with bare arms, and with much of the shoulders displayed, and by means of which it is designed to lure men to a circus” was not within the protection of the statute, finding it “merely frivolous, and to some extent immoral in tendency.”1  The Supreme Court overruled this decision, but did not address the discussion of morality, focusing on other issues.  Subsequent cases would hold that works that were illegal or immoral were not the subjects of copyright.

The offending poster from Bleistein

In the first part of the twentieth century, federal prosecutions for obscenity through the mail generally made most questions of copyright in works that might even have a shade of obscenity superfluous for domestic authors.  For foreign authors the combination of obscenity prosecutions and the manufacturing clause of the copyright law at that time (requiring that English-language books be printed and typeset in America in order to receive copyright protection) was essentially a bar to copyright protection in America for books that might be within European sensibilities, but on the edge of American ones.  Robert Spoo has written about the travails of as James Joyce in this arena, and it’s a fascinating story all its own.

In the annual report of the Register of Copyrights for 1941, the Copyright Office made clear for the first time as a written policy that it would not register “seditious, blasphemous, immoral or libelous” works, as the Office did not consider them to be copyrightable at all.  1941 Annual Report at 29-30.  Although this policy was anchored in a belief that such works were generally illegal, such a policy goes far beyond the scope of the first amendment today – I can’t say for certain if it did in 1941 though.

It is unclear whether many works were rejected in these standards, but in September of 1954, the Copyright Office issued Ruling Number 32 relating to Obscene Works, reading as follows:

a. The Office will not ordinarily attempt to examine a work to determine whether it contains material that might be considered obscene.
b. If the examiner believes, upon an ordinary examination, that a work is obscene, the Chief of the Examining Division will determine whether the work should be referred to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution. If the work is not so referred, the copyright claim may be registered.
c. When a work is referred to the Department of Justice, registration will be held up pending action by that Department.

The unraveling of this system came in September 1958, with the arrest of Lawrence E. Gichner, owner of a sheet metal company and amateur sexologist, who had attempted to register his book “Erotic Aspects of Chinese Culture.”  Apparently the Copyright Office had referred it on examination to the Department of Justice, who had contacted the Washington, DC police.  The DC police arrested him, and took for evidence fifty crates of material.  The ACLU rushed to Mr. Gichner’s defense, and the Librarian asked the President to ask his Attorney General for an opinion as to whether the Copyright Office was permitted to register works that are illegal or immoral.  On December 18, 1958, the Attorney General answered that the Office was not required to turn away works on the grounds of immorality or illegality.  41 Op. Att’y Gen. 395 (1958).

However, an eagle-eyed reader may note that the Attorney General did not actually hold that immoral works were protected by copyright – in fact he strongly implied the opposite, that both immoral and obscene works are not protected by copyright, but that it was not the job of the Copyright Office to make that determination.  In 1979 and 1982 the Fifth and 9th Circuits held that immoral and obscene works were protected by copyright.  Jartech v. Clancy, 666 F.2d 403 (9th Cir. 1982); Mitchell Bros. Film Group v. Cinema Adult Theater, 604 F.2d 852 (5th Cir. 1979)  However, in 1998, the Southern District of New York noted that it was “far from clear that the Second Circuit will follow the Fifth and Ninth Circuits in rejecting the argument that obscene material is entitled to copyright protection.”  Devils Films, Inc. v. Nectar Video, 29 F. Supp. 2d 174, 176 (S.D.N.Y. 1998).  This would be a minority position, but Courts have been noting a split on the issue ever since (the Second Circuits and most other Circuits have never addressed the issue head-on).

As obscenity has steadily shrank into the darkest corners and immorality has essentially disappeared as a legal standard, it’s easy to miss that there was surprisingly little of substance stating that copyright law protected works which fall into the vague standard of immorality.  In fact, Tam can reasonably be stated to be a precedent for copyright’s neutrality, albeit perhaps an unwitting one.  It seems that with the decision to no longer examine for immorality or obscenity, the law came to recognize that such works were protected by copyright, even in spite of a long tradition to the contrary, only partially told here.  Whether there was a causality to this or it was simply a consequence of the expanding scope of the first amendment is an interesting one.

Further Reading:

  1. the discussion of whether the posters at issue were works of the “fine arts” may have been more relevant to the question of whether the 1874 Print and Label Act controlled than to whether they were copyrightable generally, as I discuss in my article Reimagining Bleistein

The Promise and Perils of Protecting Sound Recordings with Common Law Copyright

It’s been too long since an update…and I had a couple of interesting old things to share. However, then the Northern District of Illinois granted a motion to dismiss in Sheridan v. iHeartmedia, and I needed to say a bit about it.  Some posts have been focusing on the fact that the Court found that performance rights do not exist at common law, but I think the Court actually went substantially further, and substantially abrogated civil protections for sound recordings made before 1972 in Illinois (a state criminal statute still exists for commercial record piracy).  In this post I will (hopefully) explain the doctrine, and why this case is a much bigger deal than is being commonly stated.  Finally, as always, I’ll include a tidbit from the archives.

As I’ve mentioned a number of times before, I have an article forthcoming on common-law copyright (edits are still being done by the Cincinnati Law Review).  In that piece I largely take as a given that common-law copyright protects sound recordings made before February 15, 1972, and then spend close to 100 pages exploring what exactly that means, focusing on the question of performance rights particularly and differences between statutory federal copyright law and common-law state copyright law.  And regarding New York and California, at least, that is a fairly safe presumption – given the (cryptic and outdated) California statute, coupled with caselaw from the New York Court of Appeals.  However, in other states the applicability of common-law copyright to pre-1972 sound recordings is suddenly appearing questionable, and I wanted to explore a bit what that means.

My article tells the story in much more detail, but as a result of a series of cases culminating in the Supreme Court’s 1908 decision in White-Smith v. Apollo, Courts and the Copyright Office came to understand that the 1909 Copyright Act did not protect mechanical reproductions of musical compositions (i.e. discs or piano rolls) as being protected by copyright law.  This began to be controversial in the 1930s, where big bands began to worry about radio stations using their recordings to compete with their (extremely lucrative) live radio programs.  Fred Waring and Paul Whiteman were the two primary litigants in these suits, and Waring found success, both at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and at a Federal District Court in North Carolina (although North Carolina and several other states would abrogate these decisions by statute).  Whiteman on the other hand had his position rejected by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which would partially reverse itself in 1955 in the case of Capitol v. Mercury.

It is axiomatic that common law protected a creative work (under the pre-1978 laws) until it was published, but publication destroyed common-law copyright, leaving only the possibility of statutory copyright.  The arguments at issue in all these cases involved a fundamental question – is a sound recording that is commercially sold “published” within the meaning of copyright law?1  If publication occurred then no rights exist at common law, but if publication did not occur despite the public sale of the phonorecord, then common-law rights remain.

The argument that the sale of phonorecords does not constitute a publication of the sound recording they contain is bipartite.  The first part is objective, and argues that selling a record is more akin to public performance (which is not publication) than public sale (which is), because the record is just a captured performance.  Because the American rule is that performance is not publication, therefore commercial sale of a record does not constitute a publication.  The other half is subjective, and notes that a publication is a dedication to the public, and that the bandleaders in question did not intend to dedicate their recordings to the public without any intellectual property protections – accordingly the records were not “published” and common-law protection remains.

In the 1960s piracy became a serious problem with the advent of prerecorded tapes, and state common law would prove insufficient as a remedy.  In 1971 sound recordings were brought within federal law, but this amendment applied only to sound recordings made February 15, or thereafter, of 1972 leaving state common-law copyright as the main source of legal protection for sound recordings made before that point against unauthorized exploitation .  Shortly thereafter the US Supreme Court confirmed that state-law protections for sound recordings older than 1972 were both Constitutional and not preempted by the federal statute.  A few decades passed, and the New York Court of Appeals once again affirmed that sound recordings from before 1972 remained unpublished in that state.

And that has remained the bedrock of a rich panoply of litigation in recent years over whether the common law right includes a performance rights. And at least in New York state that has resulted in a decision I took issue with that pre-1972 sound recordings lack a performance right.  However, as the issue comes before other states, Courts are showing skepticism of the underlying argument made by Waring & Whiteman, both because it’s a transparent (if possibly necessary) legal fiction and because it offers a convenient way to resolve these cases neatly.  And as mentioned whether there has been a publication that destroys common law copyright is a question of state law, so we possibly have fifty different standards for whether sale of a phonorecord constitutes publication of the sound recording it embodies – and most states have no caselaw on this specific question.

This leads us to the Sheridan decision which is the spur for this posting.  In concluding that the motion to dismiss on common-law grounds should be granted, the Court held that “There is no dispute that the Sheridans voluntarily sold their recordings. When they did so, the Sheridans lost their common law right to control the public performance of those recordings in Illinois (and pretty much everywhere else).”  This doesn’t leave the Sheridans without legal protection (48 out of 50 states, including Illinois, have criminal statutes aimed at commercial record piracy.  However, these statutes do not go beyond commercial copying and resale, and leave the putative owner of the recording at common law without any civil remedies in most cases.

And it’s not just the Illinois decision where a Court questions whether a sound recording is published or not – in the Flo & Eddie litigation in Florida the District Court questioned whether Florida protected sound recordings at all, before holding it did not need to reach the question.  At recent oral argument, the Justice of the Florida Supreme Court seemed mightily suspicious of the arguments regarding nonpublication, although one cannot infer too much from oral arguments.

What happens when a state’s highest court holds that sound recordings are not published?  Is federalization finally going to get the boost it needs from stakeholders?  Surely leaving such a situation in place would be unacceptable to the owners of the sound recording?  I’m curious to find out.

As promised, a tidbit from the archives.  The Whiteman v. RCA case has a fascinating file, at the New York location of the National Archives.  It includes extensive deposition testimony and more.  One thing that I’m not aware of having been circulated is the District Court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law, which are substantially more detailed than its published opinion.  Sadly I only have cell phone pictures of the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law (PDF 10 MB), but here it is.

I planned on having a whole separate section on whether the protection for pre-1972 sound recordings is really common-law at all – many commentators in the mid-20s century said no, including Nimmer.  But that’s really a matter of semantics, fun as those are, and this post is more than long enough already.

  1. One interesting (to me at least) question is whether this question of publication is a matter of state or federal law.  I go into this more in the paper, but I’m inclined to think that the question of whether a publication occurred to destroy common-law copyright (a “divestative” publication) is a question of state law, except a successful federal registration is one of the ways common-law copyright is destroyed.  On the other hand, whether sufficient publication occurred to have a valid registration under the terms of the 1909 copyright act (a so-called “investative publication”) is a question of federal law.  One nice benefit of this understanding is that it clarifies that the differentiation between investative and divestative publication is not an artificial legal construct – they are actually two different things.

Product Labels and the Origins of Copyright Examination

A foundational story about the development of copyright in America is the question of whether product labels could – or should – be protected by copyright.  As far as I can tell this question marked the beginning of denying copyright registration on the grounds of subject matter, and I think is an important story to tell for understanding a number of current debates regarding copyrightability, and also serves as an antecedent to the modern copyright examination system.  I’ve written about this story some in the past, in my 2012 article Reimagining Bleistein: Copyright for Advertisements in Historical Perspective, but it’s worth highlighting this story separately from the broader narrative in that piece, and I’ve found some additional parts to this story since I published that piece.

Although the 1790 Copyright Act only prescribed a limited species of works for protection, for instance omitting music from the list of protected works, Courts would quickly hold that a musical work or even a single sheet of paper could be registered for copyright as a “book” (or after 1802, a “print”).  This matches a general early tendency to be liberal in what could be registered.  However, in 1848 Justice McLean, riding Circuit, held in Scoville v. Toland that a label that reads “Doctor Rodgers’ Compound Syrup of Liverwort and Tar. A safe and certain cure for consumption of the lungs, spitting of blood, coughs, colds, asthma, pain in the side, bronchitis, whooping-cough, and all pulmonary affections. The genuine is signed Andrew Rodgers” is not subject to copyright.  Justice McLean reasoned that the purpose of the label was only to identify the product, and it communicated nothing beyond its association with the product – and accordingly copyright law would not protect it.  In the 1850s, the copyright records show a clear upwards trend in registrations of product labels for copyright protection, and coupled with the Scoville decision, this led some to question whether product labels were protected by copyright – especially regarding patent medicines.

A letter from the Clerk of the US District Court for the Northern District of New York (Aurelian Conkling at the time), published in the New York Journal of Medicine and Collateral Sciences in 1856, highlights the problems these so-called “patent medicines” posed for Clerks who were asked to register their labels for copyright (recall that the District Court Clerks were responsible for copyright registration until 1870).  The letter explains that the usage of “patent” was sardonic, since “these notrums not truly patented, the secret of their preparation being studiously withheld in defiance of…our Patent Laws.”  Rather, these patent medicines would attempt protection by registering their labels for copyright and then bringing suit against competitors for infringement of the copyright.  Mr. Conkling had been refusing to grant copyrights for patent medicine labels for several years at this point.1  Conkling further opined that:

Congress did not intend to prevent the imitations of the stamps and labels of any manufactured article, or goods, or merchandise [under copyright law].  That is a subject of such extensive interest and importance, that, if it had been the intention of Congress, to embrace it in the provisions of the law, that intention would have been distinctly and unequivocally manifested.

In response to a letter from Mr. Conkling, the State Department (responsible for the administration of copyright until 1859) issued a circular stating that “inasmuch as mere labels are not comprehended within the meaning” of the copyright law, clerks were instructed to “refuse, in all cases, to record or issue a certificate for the same” under the copyright law.

In 1859, copyright responsibilities were moved to the Interior Department, which delegated them to the Patent Office (although registrations themselves remained the responsibility of the clerks of the district courts). Shortly after this act was put into effect the Patent Office put out a circular to the same effect as the State Department circular a few years earlier, specifically directing the district courts not to register “stamps, labels, and other trade-marks of any manufactured articles, goods, or merchandise” because “the acts of Congress relating to copyright are designed to promote the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge, and to encourage the production and publication of works of art,” and thus labels were not “embraced within the meaning of the [copyright] acts.” Thus a label, no  matter how artful, could not be registered as copyright, but might be registered as a design patent.2  It’s likely that the list of labels, trademarks, etc that the Patent Office produced in 1859 and supplemented in 1861 stemmed out of the release of this circular.

In spite of these clear pronouncements, compliance with these circulars varied.  In a Series of Letters from 1864-1866 (PDF, 4 MB, from the miscellaneous files of copyright records in the Rare Book Room of the Library of Congress), a successor as clerk of the District Court for the Northern District of New York complained that he was getting many requests to register labels, and that a common complaint was that the Southern District of New York had no such compunctions about issuing copyright registrations for product labels.  Given that the Southern District had a much higher volume of copyright registrations that is perhaps understandable that less attention would be paid at the Southern District (there are 4,484 pages of copyright records microfilmed from the Northern District from 1820-1870, compared with 54,822 from the Southern District for the same period).  Perhaps more notable is that aside from the Northern District of New York, there’s no real record of other courts refusing to register labels (that I’ve found – the copyright records of many Courts are overflowing with labels by the end of the 1860s).

Nonetheless, the Copyright Office issued a Circular in response in 1866 (PDF, 1 MB, this copy from the NJ 1846-1870 Copyright Files at the Library of Congress) making clear that their views on whether labels were protected by copyright had not changed.  The language the Commissioner of Patents used is a development from Justice McLean’s opinion in Scoville v. Toland 18 years earlier, and it has a whiff of the concept of aesthetic separability that was argued in Mazer v. Stein 88 years later.

As all the acts of Congress related to copyrights are designed to promote the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge, and to encourage the productions and publication of works of art, it has always been held that stamps, labels, and other trade-marks of any manufactured article, goods,or merchandise are not embraced within the meaning of the acts.  When any production is issued as an object of art, having value in itself, and intended for sale as such, it properly comes within the provisions of the copyright law; but when, however artistically executed, it is not produced for sale as a work of art, but is designed to be affixed in the manner of a label to a manufactured article, it then plainly falls under the act relating to patents for designs, and consequently cannot be protected by copyright.

As noted, despite repeated encouragement from Washington, it does not seem that other Districts followed the lead of the Northern District of New York.  As I tell in much greater detail in my article, when copyright was centralized at the Library of Congress in 1870, the Library was quickly overwhelmed with applications to register product labels for copyright, and in 1874 the Librarian convinced Congress to pass a law transferring responsibility for registering labels to the Patent Office, where they would be a sui generis form of intellectual property registered along the same rules as those for registration of copyright.  The statute attempted to create this entire new form of intellectual property in one paragraph of statutory language, and hijnks predictably ensued, including a case where the Patent Office repeatedly ignored mandamus from what is now the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to register labels without examination.

The decision of the Supreme Court in the Trade-Mark Cases in 1879 (holding the 1870 Trademark Act unconstitutional) did not stop the process of label registration, but the Supreme Court’s 1891 holding in Higgins v. Keuffel that a label for india ink was not protected by copyright did pause the system of label registrations with the Patent Office for a number of years.

The label at issue in the case of Higgins v. Keuffel, along with its registration information.

However, in 1893 the Comissioner of Patents ruled that labels could be registered, provided they were of sufficient originality to meet the authorship requirements of the copyright clause (which the label from Higgins did not).  However, the Comissioner held that the advertisement at issue in Ex parte H.J. Heinz Co., 62 O.G. 1064 (Comm’r Patents, 1893) was of sufficient originality to qualify for registration as a label.

The product label Heinz successfully registered following an appeal to the Commissioner of Patents in 1893.

Somewhat surprisingly, commercial labels and advertisements would not be returned to the jurisdiction of the Copyright Office until 1940.  The story – especially after 1874 – is told in greater detail in my article, but I’ve brought it up a few times lately, and it seemed to be worth highlighting.

  1. Apparently the denied copyright registrations included a “elixir of life” as well as a “diarrhoea cordial.”  Letter at 423.  Surely the latter would test the limits of aesthetic non-discrimination even today.
  2. This paragraph is copied essentially verbatim from pg. 352 of my 2012 article.  What’s next is new, though.

ABS v. CBS – Why the 9th Circuit Should Correct the District Court’s Mistake Regarding Sound Recordings

Even more than most, this post is my opinion only, and reflects views and opinions that should only be imputed to me.  The gist: The 9th Circuit should reverse in ABS v. CBS, digital remasterings of sound recordings absolutely can be protected by copyright, but aren’t always and it requires factfinding, and a digital remastering does not de facto federalize a sound recording from before 1972 protected by state law.

As some of you may know, I have a fairly lengthy piece on the scope of common-law copyright for sound recordings   It’s available here, although it’s still a work in progress (the staff at the Cincinnati Law Review are currently doing edits, so pagination will change some).  If you want an audio version, you can also hear a version of my talk on the issue from the Library of Congress.

One nice thing about having this blog is that I don’t need to wait for that piece to come out, though, to explain how the decision of the US District Court for the Central District of California in ABS v. CBS is incorrect and demands reversal.  It misunderstands the basic ordering of authorship and derivative works, and I’d like to briefly explain why.  That decision is current being briefed before the 9th Circuit, and is being briefed (the Appellants’ brief is here; Appellees’ Answering Brief is here)

ABS and a host of other parties assert that they own the common-law copyrights in sound recordings made prior to February 15, 1972.  Under the current law, such older sound recordings are not protected by federal law, but may be protected by state law protections.   The preemption provisions of the copyright law contain a specific exception until 2067, so protection for all pre-1972 sound recordings will terminate then.  In practice, most states tend to follow the model of indefinite protection offered by New York under the doctrine of common-law copyright (the protection given at common law to unpublished works, under the legal fiction that sound recordings that have been commercially released are nonetheless unpublished), but the modern case law regarding whether common-law copyright includes a performance right (aka a broadcast right) is surprisingly sparse. One of the things I point out in my article is that if you cast a broader net there’s plenty of caselaw from the late nineteenth century, all of which agrees on a performance right at common law, but Courts thus far haven’t embraced this argument completely.  In response to this confusion the Copyright Office recommended federalizing protection for pre-1972 sound recordings, but that has not yet happened.

Earlier litigation brought by Flo & Eddie of the Turtles argued that digital radio services that would be required to pay a royalty under federal law were not doing so under state law, leading to the surprising determination by the New York Court of Appeals that no performance right exists for pre-1972 sound recordings, a decision whose ramifications have yet to fully play out.  However, that decision only applied to New York state in theory (how much deference other states will accord it remains unclear), so the lawsuits brought by ABS et al are going forward in a number of other states.  However, ABS made a broader claim than Flo & Eddie had, claiming that all terrestrial stations (ie regular radio) had to pay a royalty for playing their sound recordings, a requirement that does not exist at federal law.  CBS Radio, one of the largest station operators in the nation, was sued by ABS in the Central District of California.

The issue for the Court was that on one hand, the weight of precedent was that common-law seems to require a performance right in California (indeed, the same Court had just ruled that), and there’s no real principled way to create a separate rule for terrestrial radio as opposed to satellite radio under existing doctrine.1  However, there’s currently no requirement for paying royalties for plays of sound recordings on terrestrial radio, and there are concerns of administrability and uniformity from finding a common-law performance right on a state-by-state basis.

Facing long odds given the Court’s recent decision on performance rights at state law, CBS tried a clever move – they argued that they weren’t playing pre-1972 sound recordings at all, but were rather playing post-1972 sound recordings, which were protected by federal law – but had no performance rights for terrestrial radio.  The argument is that because the radio station was not playing vinyl records made before 1972, but were rather playing subsequent digital transfers, the relevant sound recordings were the digital transfers and not the originals.  As such, the case should be dismissed because all parties understood no cause of action existed under federal copyright law.

Somewhat implausibly, this succeeded and the Court granted summary judgment (the decision is available as a PDF here).  The case is currently nearly briefed before the 9th Circuit, as noted above.  There are two particular mistakes in the Court’s decision that I wanted to highlight.

Firstly, the Court looked at a number of sources, including the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition (the Copyright Office’s examining manual), and held that for every sound recording at issue (over 100), a derivative work had been created when it was remastered into a digital version.2  However, section 803.9 of that manual indicates that the following words are indicative of de minimis creativity where no sufficient authorship exists for an independent copyight: “Declicking, New format, Noise reduction, Reissue.”  In addition, “the term ‘remastering’ may refer to authorship that is mechanical or too minimal to be copyrightable.”  Put another way, a remastering absolutely can be independently copyrightable, but this is a fact-intensive question that cannot be easily resolved.  The District Court’s failure to engage in factfinding on the issue for each an every sound recording at issue is an easy ground for reversal.  However, there is a deeper problem with the District Court’s decision’s, one which moots the need for such a factfinding – even if a derivative work was created in the transfer to digital and radio stations are playing that derivative work, radio stations are still playing the underlying pre-1972 sound recording as well.

The RIAA’s Amicus Brief makes this point especially well – a derivative work only includes what is new – anything in the original work is protected by the copyright in the original work only.  This is the core holding the Supreme Court reached in its 1990 decision in Stewart v. Abend regarding the copyright in the film Rear Window.  Creating a derivative work like a digital remaster of an analog recording does not replace the protection for the underlying work.  This isn’t a statement of opinion, it’s black letter law, at 17 U.S.C. 103(b):

The copyright in a compilation or derivative work extends only to the material contributed by the author of such work, as distinguished from the preexisting material employed in the work, and does not imply any exclusive right in the preexisting material. The copyright in such work is independent of, and does not affect or enlarge the scope, duration, ownership, or subsistence of, any copyright protection in the preexisting material.

The District Court ignored a core tenet of copyright law in concluding that performance of a derivative work in a pre-1972 sound recording is only performing that derivative work, and not the original as well.

Having spent much of the recent year thinking about common-law copyright, I have devised an alternative argument along the lines of the CBS argument, one which I think avoids this pitfall.  I’ve included it below the jump, but be warned that I don’t think it actually works (especially in California) – and I’ll explain why too.  It’s more a conceptual exploration of how common-law copyright plays out differently from statutory copyright.

Continue reading “ABS v. CBS – Why the 9th Circuit Should Correct the District Court’s Mistake Regarding Sound Recordings”

  1. California actually has a statute for common-law copyright, so it’s not actually common-law, but it’s generally understood to just be a codification, and it’s short on detail
  2. In theory the Compendium is only given Skidmore  deference by the Courts, meaning it is advisory but not binding.  However, in practice the Compendium is more than a series of arbitrary examining rules – the 3rd Edition of the Compendium was one of the triumphs of Maria Pallante’s tenure as Register, and represents a thorough attempt to reckon with the body of statutes and caselaw that govern copyrightable works to determine what the Copyright Office should and should not be registering for copyright.  In practice it is now the leading treatise on what copyright does and does not protect. in the United States