List of United States Supreme Court copyright case law

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This is a list of Supreme Court of the United States cases in the area of copyright law. In the United States Constitution, the Copyright Clause in Article 1, Section 8 endows Congress with the power to create a copyright system. To avoid individual states' attempts at creating their own copyright systems, Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1790, based on Great Britain's Statute of Anne. Over the decades since, copyright in the United States has become a more complicated system with longer terms and more tests, and has been the subject of many decisions by the Court.

The Supreme Court was the source of a number of concepts in the field, including fair use, the idea-expression divide, the useful articles or separability doctrine, and the uncopyrightability of federal documents.

This list is a list solely of United States Supreme Court decisions about applying copyright law. Not all Supreme Court decisions are ultimately influential and, as in other fields, not all important decisions are made at the Supreme Court level. Many federal courts issue rulings that are significant or come to be influential, but those are outside the scope of this list.

Because they share a clause of the Constitution and much the same justifications, there is considerable overlap between patent and copyright jurisprudence. As such, patent cases may appear in this list if they make their connections to copyright explicit in the opinions.

19th century[edit]

Case Citation Year Vote Classification Subject Matter Opinions Statute Interpreted Summary
Wheaton v. Peters 33 U.S. 591 1834 5–2 Substantive Copyrightability of laws,
Common law copyright,
Copyright formalities
Majority:
McLean
Dissent:
Thompson, Baldwin
Copyright Act of 1790,
Copyright Act of 1831
There is no such thing as common law copyright after publication and one must observe the formalities to secure a copyright.
Backus v. Gould 48 U.S. 798 1849 9–0 Substantive Statutory damages for copyright infringement Majority:
McLean (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1831 The 1831 Act requires the courts award damages from copyright infringement based on the number of copies found in the accused's possession, not the number of infringing copies that they ever printed.
Stephens v. Cady 55 U.S. 528 1852 9–0 Substantive Copyright transfer Majority:
Nelson (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1831 Buying a map's copperplate in an execution sale does not imply purchasing the copyright.
Stevens v. Gladding 58 U.S. 447 1854 9–0 Substantive Copyright transfer,
Equity
Majority:
Curtis (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1831 The copyright of a work is not attached to the physical copperplate used to print the work, so purchasing the copperplate does not purchase the copyright.
Little v. Hall 59 U.S. 165 1856 9–0 Substantive Copyright transfer,
Copyrightability of laws
Majority:
McLean (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1831 A contract with state officials to be the official publisher of court opinion documents does not transfer any copyright to that publisher, and they may not seek an injunction against someone else printing those documents.
Paige v. Banks 80 U.S. 608 1872 9–0 Substantive Copyright transfer,
Copyright renewal in the United States
Majority:
Davis (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1790,
Copyright Act of 1831
An agreement that transfers a copyright from the original author to a second party for perpetuity does not end with the statutory limit of copyright at the time the parties made the deal.
Perris v. Hexamer 99 U.S. 674 1879 9–0 Substantive Copyrightability of symbols Majority:
Waite
Copyright Act of 1870

A map-maker has no more an exclusive right to use the form of the characters they employ to express their ideas on a map than they have to use the typeface they use for text.

Trade-Mark Cases 100 U.S. 82 1879 9–0 Non-Copyright Constitutional basis for trademark regulation Majority:
Miller (unanimous)
Copyright Clause,
Copyright Act of 1870,
Unconstitutional trademark acts
The Copyright Clause does not give Congress the power to regulate trademarks because trademarks are not writings, discoveries, or inventions.
Baker v. Selden 101 U.S. 99 1879 9–0 Substantive Idea–expression divide,
Useful art
Majority:
Bradley (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1831 Exclusive rights to the "useful art" described in a book are only available by patent. The description itself is protectable by copyright.
Merrell v. Tice 104 U.S. 557 1881 9–0 Substantive Majority:
Bradley
Copyright Act of 1870, amendment in 1874 Because statutory procedures exist for producing evidence of copyright formality observance, evidence of at least such veracity is required to prove copyright claims.
Schreiber v. Sharpless 110 U.S. 76 1884 9–0 Substantive Majority:
Waite
Copyright Act of 1870 Charges of copyright infringement do not survive the death of the accused and may not be transferred to the executors of their will.
Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony 111 U.S. 53 1884 9–0 Substantive Copyrightability of photography Majority:
Miller (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1870, amendment in 1874 Extended copyright protection to photography.
Thornton v. Schreiber 124 U.S. 612 1888 9–0 Substantive Majority:
Miller
Copyright Act of 1870 A copyright holder may not personally sue an employee of a business for copyright infringement if the employee was holding the infringing material on the order of their employer.
Banks v. Manchester 128 U.S. 244 1888 9–0 Substantive Copyrightability of laws Majority:
Blatchford (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1870 No copyright in state Supreme Court opinions.
Callaghan v. Myers 128 U.S. 617 1888 9–0 Substantive Copyrightability of laws,
Public domain
Majority:
Blatchford (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1831,
Copyright Act of 1870
Arrangements of public domain records can represent copyrightable intellectual effort.
Thompson v. Hubbard 131 U.S. 123 1889 9–0 Substantive Formalities Majority:
Blatchford (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1870, amendment in 1874 A later owner of a copyright is entitled to sue a previous owner for copyright infringement. However, the later owner's failure to observe formalities voids copyright and a nonexistent copyright cannot be infringed.
Higgins v. Keuffel 140 U.S. 428 1891 9–0 Substantive Majority:
Field (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1831,
Copyright Act of 1870,
amendment in 1874
A label describing the contents of a container is not subject to copyright.
Belford v. Scribner 144 U.S. 488 1892 8–0 Substantive Majority:
Blatchford
Copyright Act of 1870 1) A copyright is held by default with the person whose name it was taken out in, regardless of potential conflicts with state law. 2) If a work contains a mixture of original and copyright infringing material, but it is so intermingled as to be inseparable, then the copyright holder may take all profits from the work.
Press Pub. Co. v. Monroe 164 U.S. 105 1896 9–0 Procedural Diversity jurisdiction,
Common law copyright
Majority:
Gray (unanimous)
International Copyright Act of 1891 Due to diversity jurisdiction, the circuit court's decision was valid. Dismissed because a Supreme Court petition must invoke the Constitution or the laws of the United States, and a common law copyright claim does neither.
Holmes v. Hurst 174 U.S. 82 1899 9–0 Substantive Majority:
Brown (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1831 When someone begins printing a serial book in a magazine, they may file for copyright of the entire book even if the book does not exist as a completed whole.
Brady v. Daly 175 U.S. 148 1899 9–0 Procedural Statutory damages for copyright infringement, Equity Peckham (unanimous) Copyright Act of 1831,
amendment in 1856,
Copyright Act of 1870
The common law circuit court did have jurisdiction over the copyright infringement case because the statutory damages were not a penalty or forfeiture.
Bolles v. Outing Co. 175 U.S. 262 1899 9–0 Substantive Majority:
Brown (White) (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1831,
Copyright Act of 1870
Copies already distributed are out of scope of copyright infringement damage lawsuits.

20th century[edit]

Case Citation Year Vote Classification Subject Matter Opinions Statute Interpreted Summary
Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Company 188 U.S. 239 1903 7–2 Substantive Copyrightability of commercial art Majority:
Holmes
Dissent:
Harlan (McKenna)
Copyright Act of 1870, amendment in 1874 Copyright protection of illustrations made for advertisements
Mifflin v. R. H. White Company 190 U.S. 260 1903 9–0 Substantive Majority:
Brown (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1831 The authorized appearance of a work in a magazine without a copyright notice specifically dedicated to that work transfers that work into the public domain.
Mifflin v. Dutton 190 U.S. 265 1903 9–0 Substantive Majority:
Brown (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1831 The authorized appearance of a work in a magazine without a copyright notice specifically dedicated to that work transfers that work into the public domain.
McLoughlin v. Raphael Tuck & Sons Co. 191 U.S. 267 1903 8–0 Substantive Majority:
White (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1870,
amendment in 1895,
International Copyright Act of 1891
Articles of a class made illegal by a statute that existed in the United States before the statute came into effect are still legal.
American Tobacco Co. v. Werckmeister 207 U.S. 284 1907 9–0 Substantive Asset forfeiture,
Unreasonable search and seizure
Majority:
Day (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1870,
amendment in 1895,
Fourth Amendment,
International Copyright Act of 1891
The seizure by the United States marshal in a copyright case of certain pictures under a writ of replevin did not constitute an unreasonable search and seizure.
Werckmeister v. American Tobacco Co. 207 U.S. 375 1907 9–0 Procedural Asset forfeiture Majority:
Day (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1870,
amendment in 1895
A copyright holder is limited to one action to collect infringing copies and statutory damages because the act's remedies are penal and must be observed without construction.
United Dictionary Co. v. G. & C. Merriam Co. 208 U.S. 260 1908 9–0 Substantive Formalities Majority:
Holmes (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1870,
amendment in 1874
The requirement that notice reside in each copy of every edition does not extend to works published and sold abroad only.
White-Smith Music Publishing Co. v. Apollo Co. 209 U.S. 1 1908 9–0 Substantive Public performance right in music Majority:
Day (unanimous)
Concurrence: Holmes
International Copyright Act of 1891
Copyright Act of 1870,
amendment in 1897
Reproduction of the sounds of musical instruments playing music for which copyright granted not a violation of the copyright.
Dun v. Lumbermen's Credit Ass'n 209 U.S. 20 1908 9–0 Majority:
Moody (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1870 The existence of some copyright-infringing information in a rote reference work does not entitle the original author to seek an injunction against the printing the later article when the later article's contents demonstrate significant original work.
Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus 210 U.S. 339 1908 9–0 Substantive First-sale doctrine Majority:
Day (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1870 No license to use copyrighted material. License cannot extend holder's rights beyond statute defined by Congress.
Scribner v. Straus 210 U.S. 352 1908 9–0 Majority:
Day (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1870 Copyright holders did not have the statutory right to control the price of subsequent resales of lawfully purchased copies of their work.
Globe Newspaper Co. v. Walker 210 U.S. 356 1908 9–0 Majority:
Day (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1790, International Copyright Act of 1891 Congress having provided a remedy for those whose copyrights in maps are infringed, a civil action at common law for money damages cannot be maintained against the infringers.
Bong v. Campbell Art Co. 214 U.S. 236 1909 9–0 Substantive International copyright treaties Majority:
McKenna (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1870, amendment and 1895, International Copyright Act of 1891 A copyright cannot be granted to a non-citizen whose country has not been acknowledged as in a reciprocal copyright arrangement with the United States by a formal presidential proclamation. Because the non-citizen is not granted a copyright, they cannot assign a copyright for a work to a citizen of a country with American copyright privileges. That citizen cannot register a copyright for the work.
Caliga v. Inter Ocean Newspaper Co. 215 U.S. 182 1909 9–0 Substantive Majority:
Day (unanimous)
International Copyright Act of 1891 A person cannot file a second copyright claim to amend the first, even if the first was determined to be invalid.
Hills and Co. v. Hoover 220 U.S. 329 1911 9–0 Majority:
Day
International Copyright Act of 1891, Copyright Act of 1909
American Lithographic Co. v. Werkmeister 221 U.S. 603 1911 9–0 Majority:
Hughes (unanimous)
A corporation defendant in a suit to enforce copyright infringement penalties is not entitled to a Fourth or Fifth Amendment objection to the admission of its bookkeeping entries into evidence when they are produced under a subpoena.
Kalem Co. v. Harper Bros. 222 U.S. 55 1911 9–0 Substantive Derivative works, Idea-expression dichotomy, Secondary liability Majority:
Holmes (unanimous)
Copyright Clause, International Copyright Act of 1891 Producing a motion picture based on a dramatic work can be copyright infringement. The producer of the motion picture is liable even they are not the exhibitor. This does not extend to a restriction of the dramatic work's ideas; it is a recognition of the author's monopoly powers granted by Congress.
Ferris v. Frohman 223 U.S. 424 1912 9–0 Substantive Publication and Public Performance Majority:
Hughes (unanimous)
An unauthorized public production of an unpublished play does not invalidate the play owner's common law copyright.
Henry v. A.B. Dick Co. 224 U.S. 1 1912 4–3 Non-Copyright Patent infringement,
Tying
Majority:
Lurton (McKenna, Holmes, Van Devanter)
Dissent:
White (Hughes, Lamar)
Patent Act of 1870 Patent owners can prescribe requirements to how licensees may use their patented invention. Selling a product that knowingly contravenes one of those restrictions is contributory infringement of the patent.
Bauer & Cie. v. O'Donnell 229 U.S. 1 1913 5–4 Non-Copyright Intersection of patents and first-sale doctrine Majority:
Day
Dissent:
Holmes (McKenna, Lurton, Van Devanter)
Differences between patent and copyright defined also prohibits a license from extending rightsholders' rights beyond statute. Rights of copyright holder regarding "use" of copyrighted works.
Straus v. American Publishers Association 231 U.S. 222 1913 9–0 Majority:
Day
An agreement that is manifestly anti-competitive and illegal under the Sherman Antitrust Act cannot be justified by copyright.
Order of St. Benedict of New Jersey v. Steinhauser 234 U.S. 640 1914 9–0 Majority:
Hughes (unanimous)
When someone joins an ecclesiastical order, subject to individual state law, their income from copyright may be dedicated to that order's common fund as much as any other income or form of property. This does not violate any part of the Constitution if the member may withdraw from the order at any time.
DeJonge and Co. v. Breuker & Kessler Co. 235 U.S. 33 1914 9–0 Majority:
Holmes (unanimous)
Every instance of a copyrighted work must observe copyright notice formalities for the work to maintain copyright, even if the work appears multiple times on the same sheet of paper. Every copy of a copyrighted painting must bear the notice for the painting to maintain copyright.
G. & C. Merriam Co. v. Syndicate Pub. Co. 237 U.S. 618 1915 9–0 Non-Copyright Majority:
Day
Trade Mark Act of 1881 After a copyrighted work expires, the word used to designate that work falls into the public domain and cannot be trademarked.
Herbert v. Shanley Co. 242 U.S. 591 1917 9–0 Substantive Public performance of live music in business establishments Majority:
Holmes (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1909 Hotels & restaurants that perform music must compensate composers, even if the venue is not separately charging patrons to hear the music.
International News Service v. Associated Press 248 U.S. 215 1918 5–3 Non-Copyright Hot News Majority:
Pitney
Dissent:
Holmes (McKenna), Brandeis
While the information found in AP news was not copyrightable and subject to publici juris, AP has a quasi-property interest during the production of "hot news".
L. A. Westermann Co. v. Dispatch Printing Co. 249 U.S. 100 1919 9–0 Majority:
Van Devanter
Penalties awarded "in lieu of actual damages and profits" cannot be less than $250 for each case of copyright infringement.
Manners v. Morosco 252 U.S. 317 1920 7–2 Substantive Derivative works Majority:
Holmes
Dissent:
Clarke (Pitney)
Copyright Act of 1909 1) The copyright transfer contract was not limited to five years because the agreement dealt in minimum requirements. 2) A transfer of the copyright for the production of a play on stage does not grant the ability to make a motion picture based on the play. However, a grant of exclusivity implies a negative guarantee that the original creator will not do anything that may adversely affect that exclusivity, meaning the author forfeited their own ability to authorize a motion picture production.
Lumiere v. Mae Edna Wilder, Inc. 261 U.S. 174 1923 9–0 Majority:
Brandeis
A person or corporation cannot file suits under the Copyright Act in areas in which they do not have an office and do no business.
Fox Film Corp. v. Knowles 261 U.S. 326 1923 9–0 Majority:
Holmes
The statute intends that an executor, there being no widow, widower, or child, shall have the same right to renew a copyright for a second term as his testator might have exercised had he continued to survive.
Educational Films Corp. v. Ward 282 U.S. 379 1931 6–3 Substantive Corporate tax Majority:
Stone
Dissent:
Sutherland (Van Devanter, Butler)
New York Tax Law, Article 9-A A corporate income tax may include royalties from copyrights in its calculation of overall income even though direct income from copyrights, a federal institution, is immune from state taxation.
Buck v. Jewell-LaSalle Realty Co. 283 U.S. 191 1931 9–0 Substantive Public performance right in radio broadcasts in business establishments Majority:
Brandeis (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1909 A hotel operator which provided headphones connected to a centrally controlled radio receiver was guilty of copyright infringement, because "reception of a radio broadcast and its translation into audible sound is not a mere audition of the original program. It is essentially a reproduction." NB: Gene Buck, plaintiff, was president of ASCAP.
Fox Film Corp. v. Doyal 286 U.S. 123 1932 9–0 Substantive State government taxation of copyright royalties Majority:
Hughes (unanimous)
States may tax copyright royalties, as they can patent royalties, because even though copyrights & patents are granted by the federal government, they are still private property subject to taxation.
George v. Victor Talking Machine Co. 293 U.S. 377 1934 9–0 per curiam The district court's ruling of infringement of a song's common law copyright, granting an injunction so that damages could be determined, was interlocutory. The appeal came too late, so the Court vacated the appeal.
Douglas v. Cunningham 294 U.S. 207 1935 9–0 Copyright Act of 1909 The statute allowed an award of $5,000 instead of a copyright infringement damages calculation based on the newspaper's circulation.
KVOS v. Associated Press 299 U.S. 269 1936 8–0 Non-Copyright Hot news Majority:
Roberts
An association of newspapers cannot sue collectively to raise their projected damages above the minimum damages required for federal jurisdiction when only individual newspapers are parties to unfair competition.
Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. United States 304 U.S. 55 1938 5–3 Majority:
Stone
Dissent:
O. Roberts (McReynolds, Butler)
Sherman Antitrust Act
Washingtonian Pub. Co. v. Pearson 306 U.S. 30 1939 6–3 Substantive Formalities Majority:
McReynolds
Dissent:
Black (O. Roberts, Reed)
Copyright Act of 1909 The 1909 Act's deposit requirement did not require immediate deposit, or deposit before infringement occurs, in order to bring a suit for infringement
Gibbs v. Buck 307 U.S. 66 1939 8–1 Substantive Majority:
Reed
Dissent:
Black
1) An association of copyright holders, ASCAP, may sum their collective costs to meet the damages threshold for federal jurisdiction. 2) A motion to dismiss allegations that raise "grave doubts about the constitutionality" of legislation should be denied.
Buck v. Gallagher 307 U.S. 95 1939 8–1 Substantive Majority:
Reed
Dissent:
Black
1) ASCAP members have a common and undivided interest in the right to license in association through the Society free of the state statute. 2) The lower court should have allowed ASCAP members the opportunity to price the cost of complying with the statute and the value of the copyrights affected by it.
Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corp. 309 U.S. 390 1940 8–0 Procedural Damages Majority:
Hughes (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1909 In the case of an unauthorized adaptation, court may elect to award only a portion of an infringer's profits to the plaintiff.
Fashion Originators' Guild of America v. FTC 312 U.S. 457 1941 9–0 Non-Copyright Antitrust Majority:
Black
Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914,
Sherman Antitrust Act
A practice short of a complete monopoly but which tends to create a monopoly and to deprive the public of the advantages from free competition in interstate trade, offends the policy of the Sherman Act. Specifically, the Guild was trying to create an artificial copyright monopoly via boycotts because clothes were uncopyrightable at the time.
Watson v. Buck 313 U.S. 387 1941 Majority:
Black
Marsh v. Buck 313 U.S. 406 1941 Majority:
Black
General statements that the law will be enforced if enacted are not threats against entities subject to the law.
Fred Fisher Music Co. v. M. Witmark & Sons 318 U.S. 643 1943 5–3 Substantive Renewal terms and assignment Majority:
Frankfurter
Dissent:
Black, Douglas, Murphy
Copyright Act of 1909 The renewal of copyright for the second term is not an opportunity for an author to renegotiate terms made during the first term that extended beyond the first term's length.
United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. 334 U.S. 131 1948 7–1 Non-Copyright Antitrust Majority:
Douglas
Dissent:
Frankfurter (in part)
Sherman Antitrust Act Practice of block booking and ownership of theater chains by film studios constituted anti-competitive and monopolistic trade practices.
Commissioner v. Wodehouse 337 U.S. 369 1949 6–3 Non-Copyright Taxation Majority:
Burton
Dissent:
Frankfurter (Murphy, Jackson)
Revenue Act of 1934,
Revenue Act of 1936
Lump sums paid in advance by publications to non-resident aliens are taxable income under the Revenue Act and are indistinguishable from "royalties" paid over time within the meaning of that Act.
F. W. Woolworth Co. v. Contemporary Arts, Inc. 344 U.S. 227 1952 7–2 Procedural Election of remedies, Statutory damages for copyright infringement Majority:
Jackson
Dissent:
Black (Frankfurter)
Copyright Act of 1909 Court may grant statutory damages, even when infringer proves its gross profits were less than the statutory award. Judges granted wide latitude when determining legal remedies based on the facts of the case.
Mazer v. Stein 347 U.S. 201 1954 7–2 Substantive Copyrightability of sculpture, Idea/Expression Dichotomy, Useful art Majority:
Reed
Dissent:
Douglas (Black)
Copyright Act of 1909 Extended copyright protection to functional art.
De Sylva v. Ballentine 351 U.S. 570 1956 9–0 Substantive Renewal terms and beneficiaries Majority:
Harlan II (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1909 After the death of an author, the widow and children are eligible to renew copyright, equally as a class. Additionally, conditional on state laws, illegitimate children are also eligible for a share of the copyright.
Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. v. Loew's, Inc. 356 U.S. 43 1958 4–4 Substantive Fair use in parody per curiam aff'd 4-4 sub. nom., Benny v. Loew's, 239 F.2d 532 (9th Cir. 1956)
Miller Music Corp. v. Charles N. Daniels, Inc. 362 U.S. 373 1960 5–4 Substantive Duration Majority:
Douglas
Dissent:
Harlan II (Frankfurter, Whittaker, Stewart)
The executor of a copyright holder's will is eligible to renew that copyright.
Pub. Affairs Associates, Inc. v. Rickover 369 U.S. 111 1962 5–3 per curiam
Concurrence:
Douglas
Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Stiffel Co. 376 U.S. 225 1964 9–0 Non-Copyright Public domain Majority:
Black
Concurrence:
Harlan II
Copyright Act of 1909,
Copyright Clause,
Supremacy Clause
An unpatented article belongs to the public and a state law that would prevent its copying would violate the Supremacy Clause.
Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc. 392 U.S. 390 1968 5–1 Substantive Public performance of broadcast television Majority:
Stewart
Dissent:
Fortas
Receiving a television broadcast (of a licensed work) does not constitute a "performance"
Goldstein v. California 412 U.S. 546 1973 5–4 Non-Copyright Federal pre-emption of state criminal copyright law Majority:
Burger
Dissent:
Douglas (Brennan, Blackmun), Marshall (Brennan, Blackmun)
California's state statutes criminalizing record piracy did not violate the Copyright Clause
Teleprompter Corp. v. Columbia Broadcasting 415 U.S. 394 1974 6–3 Substantive Public performance of broadcast television Majority:
Stewart
Dissent:
Blackmun (in part), Douglas (Burger)
Receiving a television broadcast from a "distant" source does not constitute a "performance"
Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken 422 U.S. 151 1975 7–2 Substantive Public performance of radio broadcasts in business establishments Majority:
Stewart
Dissent:
Burger (Douglas)
Concurrence:
Blackmun
Receiving a radio broadcast of a licensed work does not constitute a "performance". This effectively overruled Buck v. Jewel-LaSalle Realty Co. (1931)
Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States 420 U.S. 376 1975 4–4 Substantive Fair use in photocopies per curiam Copyright Act of 1909,
National Library of Medicine Act,
Medical Library Assistance Act of 1965
Affirmed by an equally divided court. It is a fair use for libraries to photocopy articles for use by patrons engaged in scientific research.
Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co. 433 U.S. 562 1977 5–4 Substantive Majority:
White
Dissent:
Powell (Brennan, Marshall), Stevens
Copyright Act of 1976 The First and Fourteenth Amendments do not immunize the news media from civil liability when they broadcast a performer's entire act without his consent, nor does the Constitution prevent a State from requiring broadcasters to compensate performers.
Broadcast Music v. Columbia Broadcasting System 441 U.S. 1 1979 8–1 Non-Copyright Antitrust and copyright collective rights organizations Majority:
White
Dissent:
Stevens
Sherman Antitrust Act The issuance by ASCAP and BMI of blanket licenses does not constitute price-fixing per se unlawful under the antitrust laws
Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. 464 U.S. 417 1984 5–4 Substantive Secondary liability and fair use in home recordings Majority:
Stevens
Dissent:
Blackmun (Marshall, Powell, Rehnquist)
Copyright Act of 1976 The Betamax Case
Mills Music, Inc. v. Snyder 469 U.S. 153 1985 5–4 Substantive Termination Majority:
Stevens
Dissent:
White (Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun)
Copyright Act of 1976 If the author of a work authorizes derivatives, the terms negotiated in exchange for that grant stand even if the grant is later rescinded. If the copyright holder deputizes another person to authorize derivative works, the law draws no distinction between such works and those directly authorized by the copyright holder.
Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises 471 U.S. 539 1985 6–3 Substantive Fair use in excerpts Majority:
O'Connor
Dissent:
Brennan (White, Marshall)
Copyright Act of 1976 The interest served by republication of a public figure's account of an event is not sufficient to permit nontransformative Fair use.
Dowling. v. United States 473 U.S. 207 1985 6–3 Non-Copyright Criminal law impact of infringement Majority:
Blackmun
Dissent:
Powell (Burger, White)
Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 Copyright infringement is not theft, conversion, or fraud; illegally made copies are not stolen goods.
Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid 490 U.S. 730 1989 9–0 Substantive Work-made-for-hire Majority:
Marshall (unanimous)
Copyright Act of 1976 The default rule is that the artist who creates a commissioned work retains copyright ownership of the work (because the artist is an independent contractor and not an employee producing a work made for hire.) However, this is only a presumption which can be modified by contract.
Stewart v. Abend 495 U.S. 207 1990 6–3 Substantive Derivative works Majority:
O'Connor
Dissent:
Stevens (Rehnquist, Scalia)
Concurrence:
White
Copyright Act of 1976 Rights of the successor of a copyright interest
Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co. 499 U.S. 340 1991 9–0 Substantive Copyrightability of facts and Idea/Expression Dichotomy Majority:
O'Connor
Concurrence:
Blackmun
Copyright Act of 1976 Affirmed the need for a minimal amount of creativity before a work is copyrightable. "Sweat of the brow" alone is not sufficient to bestow copyright.
Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc. 510 U.S. 517 1994 9–0 Procedural Attorneys Fees Majority:
Rehnquist
Concurrence:
Thomas
Copyright Act of 1976 Attorney's fees in copyright litigation may be awarded to successful defendants, as well as to successful plaintiffs
Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. 510 U.S. 569 1994 9–0 Substantive Fair use in Commercial Parody Majority:
Souter
Concurrence:
Kennedy
Copyright Act of 1976 Commercial parody can be fair use.
Lotus Dev. Corp. v. Borland Int'l, Inc. 516 U.S. 233 1995 4–4 Substantive Copyrightability of software program interfaces per curiam Copyright Act of 1976 Scope of software copyrights.
Quality King Distributors, Inc. v. L'anza Research Int'l, Inc. 523 U.S. 135 1998 9–0 Substantive Reimportation Majority:
Stevens
Concurrence:
Ginsburg
Copyright Act of 1976 First-sale doctrine applies to reimported goods
Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc. 523 U.S. 340 1998 9–0 Procedural Right to Jury Trial, Statutory damages for copyright infringement Majority:
Thomas
Concurrence:
Scalia
Copyright Act of 1976, Seventh Amendment Seventh Amendment right to jury trial in a copyright infringement case

21st century[edit]

Case Citation Year Vote Classification Subject Matter Opinions Statute Interpreted Summary
New York Times Co. v. Tasini 533 U.S. 483 2001 7–2 Substantive Collective works Majority:
Ginsburg
Dissent:
Stevens (Breyer)
Copyright Act of 1976 Freelance journalists did not grant electronic republication rights for collective work.
Eldred v. Ashcroft 537 U.S. 186 2003 7–2 Substantive Term Extension Majority:
Ginsburg
Dissent:
Stevens, Breyer
Copyright Clause,
Copyright Act of 1976
Challenge to Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998; held Congress may retroactively extend the duration of works still under copyright, as long as the extension is limited.
Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. 539 U.S. 23 2003 8–0 Non-Copyright Intersection of TM law with public domain works Majority:
Scalia (unanimous)
Lanham Act Trademark cannot preserve rights to a public domain work.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. 545 U.S. 913 2005 9–0 Substantive Secondary liability Majority:
Souter (unanimous)
Concurrence:
Ginsburg (Rehnquist, Kennedy), Breyer (Stevens, O'Connor)
Copyright Act of 1976 Distributors of peer-to-peer file-sharing software can be liable for copyright infringement if there are "affirmative steps taken to foster infringement".
Microsoft Corp. v. AT&T Corp. 550 U.S. 437 2007 7–1 Non-Copyright Patent infringement Majority:
Ginsburg
Concurrence:
Alito (Thomas, Breyer) (in all but part)
Dissent:
Stevens
35 U.S.C. § 271(f) (Patent Act) Liability for such unauthorized replication and installation of software in foreign countries must arise under the patent laws of foreign countries. Although a patent case, it discusses the nature of what is a copy of software.
Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick 559 U.S. 154 2010 8–0 Procedural Registration Majority:
Thomas
Concurrence:
Ginsburg (Stevens, Breyer)
Copyright Act of 1976 Settlement of copyright infringement claims relating to an electronic database
Omega S.A. v. Costco Wholesale Corp. 562 U.S. 40 2010 4–4 Substantive First-sale doctrine per curiam Copyright Act of 1976 Affirming 541 F.3d 982 (9th Cir. 2008)
Golan v. Holder 565 U.S. 302 2012 6–2 Substantive Restoration of copyright in public domain works Majority:
Ginsburg
Dissent:
Breyer (Alito)
Copyright Clause,
Copyright Act of 1976,
Uruguay Round Agreements Act
Constitution gives broad discretion to Congress to decide how best to promote the "progress of science and the useful arts", including restoring copyright in public domain works.
Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 568 U.S. 519 2013 6–3 Substantive First-sale doctrine Majority:
Breyer
Concurrence:
Kagan (Alito)
Dissent:
Ginsburg (Scalia (in part), Kennedy)
Copyright Act of 1976 The first-sale doctrine applies to copyrighted works made lawfully overseas.
Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. 572 U.S. 663 2014 6–3 Substantive Laches Majority:
Ginsburg
Dissent:
Breyer (Roberts, Kennedy)
Copyright Act of 1976 The laches defense is not available in copyright infringement cases.
American Broadcasting Cos., Inc. v. Aereo, Inc. 573 U.S. 431 2014 6–3 Substantive Public performance Majority:
Breyer
Dissent:
Scalia (Thomas, Alito)
Copyright Act of 1976 Aereo's subscription service allowed subscribers to view live and time-shifted streams of over-the-air television on Internet-connected devices; the live viewing was deemed to be an infringing "retransmission" within the meaning of the public performance right.
Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. 580 U.S. ___ 2017 6–2 Substantive Useful art, Useful articles Majority:
Thomas
Concurrence:
Ginsburg
Dissent:
Breyer (Kennedy)
Copyright Act of 1976 Aesthetic design elements on useful articles like clothing can be copyrightable if they can be separately identified as art and exist independently of the useful article.
Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com 586 U.S. ___ 2019 9-0 Procedural Copyright registration Majority:
Ginsburg
Copyright Act of 1976 A copyright owner may not file an infringement suit until the Register of Copyrights has granted the application for registration.
Rimini Street Inc. v. Oracle USA Inc. 586 U.S. ___ 2019 9-0 Substantive Statutory damages for copyright infringement Majority:
Kavanaugh
Copyright Act of 1976, Fee Act of 1853 The Copyright Act’s award of "full costs" to a prevailing party in a copyright infringement claim is limited to six categories specified in the Fee Act of 1853 (the general costs statute).
Allen v. Cooper 589 U.S. ___ 2020 9-0 Substantive Sovereign immunity Majority:
Kagan
Concurrence:
Thomas, Breyer (Ginsburg)
Copyright Remedy Clarification Act Congress did not validly abrogate state sovereign immunity via the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act. Authors of original expression whose federal copyrights are infringed by States may not sue any state without its consent.
Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org, Inc. 589 U.S. ___ 2020 5-4 Substantive Copyrightability of laws Majority:
Roberts (Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh)
Dissent:
Thomas (Alito, Breyer), Ginsburg (Breyer)
Copyright Act of 1976 Annotations to state law are ineligible for copyright.
Google v. Oracle No. 18-956, 593 U.S. ___ (2021) 2021 6-2 Substantive Software copyright, Fair use Majority
Breyer (Roberts, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh)
Dissent:
Thomas (Alito)
Copyright Act of 1976 The copying of APIs can be fair use.
Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P. 589 U.S. ___ 2022 6-3 Procedural Copyright registration Majority:
Breyer (Roberts, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, Barrett)
Dissent:
Thomas (Alito, Gorsuch)
Copyright Act of 1976 Lack of either factual or legal knowledge can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration.

Forthcoming cases[edit]

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari, but not yet issued a decision, in the following case:

Case Docket Granted cert. Argued Classification Subject Matter Statute Interpreted Issue
Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith No. 21-869 March 28, 2022 TBD Procedural Whether a work of art is "transformative" when it conveys a different meaning or message from its source material (as this Court, the Ninth Circuit, and other courts of appeal have held), or whether a court is forbidden from considering the meaning of the accused work where it "recognizably deriv[es] from" its source material (as the Second Circuit has held).

Dissents to denials of certiorari[edit]

When the Court refuses to hear a case, justices are entitled to write dissents to that denial of certiorari.

Case Citation Year Subject Matter Dissenter(s) Statute Interpreted Question Dissent Reason
Lee v. Runge 404 U.S. 887 1971 Copyrightability,
Idea-expression divide
Douglas Copyright Clause Because Congress's power to create copyright and patent laws both come from the Copyright Clause, should they not both be judged by the same standard? Lee argued that the standard should be patents' "novelty" rather than copyright's "originality." Many of the interests of copyrights and patent overlap, and the part of Copyright Clause specifying that Congress's laws must "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" is a limit on Congress's authority.
Data General Corp. v. Digidyne Corp. 473 U.S. 908 1985 Antitrust, Tying White, Blackmun Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 What constitutes forcing power in the absence of a large share of the general market? Must market power over "locked in" customers be analyzed at the outset of the original decision to purchase? What effect should be given to the existence of a copyright or other legal monopoly in determining market power? The situation raised a number of complexities in the issue of whether tying software and hardware using copyrights or patents is anti-competitive, and the precedents set by the lower court were based on specious details. For example, a lower court had essentially said flatly that tying arrangements were anti-competitive, but the Supreme Court had ruled otherwise in cases like Jefferson Parish Hospital District No. 2 v. Hyde. The issue was likely to become more important as the multi-billion dollar computer industry continued to grow, so it was better to address the problems sooner rather than later.
Harper v. Maverick Recording Co. 562 U.S. 1080 2010 Copyright infringement Alito Copyright Act of 1976,
Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988
Should the "inadvertent innocent infringer" defense to copyright infringement be eliminated for all Internet music downloading? The "innocent infringer" defense, which lowers statutory minimum damages of copyright infringement from $750 to $200, was written in a time when copyright notices would be clearly affixed to physical media, which was part of the expectation in favor of the defense. A digital music MP3 file could not bear a human-readable copyright notice, so there was a strong argument for the defense. Moreover, the lower courts declined to take mitigating factors such as the 16-year-old Harper's age into consideration, and perhaps they should have.

Further research[edit]

See also[edit]