Wheaton v. Peters
|Wheaton v. Peters|
|Decided March 19, 1834|
|Full case name||Henry Wheaton and Robert Donaldson, Appellants
Richard Peters and John Grigg
|Citations||33 U.S. 591 (more)|
|While the common law undoubtedly protected the right to one's unpublished writings, this is a very different right from that which asserts a perpetual and exclusive property in the future publication of the work, after the author shall have published it to the world.|
Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 591 (1834), was the first United States Supreme Court ruling on copyright. The case upheld the power of Congress to make a grant of copyright protection subject to conditions and rejected the doctrine of a common law copyright.
The case arose out of the printing of the Supreme Court's own opinions. Henry Wheaton, the third reporter of decisions, had compiled with great care the opinions of the Court, complete with annotations and summaries of the arguments in Court, useful material but which made the volumes of his reports costly and out of the reach of most lawyers. His successor as reporter, Richard Peters, in addition to publishing the current volumes of reports, had gone over his predecessor's work, eliminating the arguments and other extraneous material, and publishing an abridged edition in which he reduced twenty-four volumes into six. While the reporter did receive a $1,000 per year salary from the government, it did not cover the full expenses of preparing the reports and the reporters relied on the sale of the books to recoup their costs. By creating more affordable volumes, Peters devastated the market for Wheaton's more expensive books.
Wheaton sued in Pennsylvania and lost in the circuit court. The judge, Joseph Hopkinson, ruled that copyright is purely the creation of statute and one must comply with the requirements of registering a copyright, putting a notice in the work covered, etc., in order to receive protection. Judge Hopkinson also ruled that there was no federal common law, that one must look to the states for common law and, even then, that the states did not necessarily adopt the entire English common law — assuming there was a common law copyright.
Wheaton then appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
John McLean, who himself had publishing experience as the founder of an Ohio newspaper, wrote the opinion of the Court. In it, he declared that while the common law undoubtedly protected the right to one's unpublished writings — e.g. a diary, personal letters — "this is a very different right from that which asserts a perpetual and exclusive property in the future publication of the work, after the author shall have published it to the world." McLean declared there was no common law right: "Congress, then, by this act, instead of sanctioning an existing right, as contended, created it." McLean also rejected Wheaton's contention that requiring registration and the other conditions of the law were improper. Congress was giving Wheaton and other creators a special protection and it was not unreasonable to expect them to observe the formalities, the Court ruled.
This precedent corresponded to the English decision in Donaldson v. Beckett, which was cited in the Court's opinion.
- History of copyright
- List of leading legal cases in copyright law
- List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 33
- Wheaton v. Peters, 29 F. Cas. 862 (C.C.E.D. Pa. 1832) (No. 17,486).
- 33 U.S. at 658.
- 33 U.S. at 660–61.
- Deazley, Ronan (2004). On the Origin of the Right to Copy: Charting the Movement of Copyright Law in Eighteenth-century Britain (1695-1775). Oxford: Hart. ISBN 1-84113-375-2.
- Goldstein, Paul (1994). Copyright's Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 0-8090-5381-0.
- Patterson, Lyman Ray (1968). Copyright in Historical Perspective. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
- Patterson, Lyman Ray; Lindberg, Stanley W. (1991). The Nature of Copyright: A Law of Users' Rights. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-1347-5.
- Smith, Jean Edward (1996). John Marshall: Definer Of A Nation. New York: Henry Holt & Company. ISBN 0-8050-1389-X.
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