Allen v. Cooper: Justly Decided If Not Exactly Just

Professional creators following the case Allen v. Cooper were no doubt disappointed by the Supreme Court’s March 23 decision—a unanimous holding that the States (and/or their agents) are generally free to infringe copyrights with impunity. But perhaps authors of works should not to be entirely discouraged on this matter, because it seems clear from the opinions written that the Justices would have preferred if the law had led them to the opposite conclusion. Moreover, a path for legislative reform remains open.   

A Quick Recap

See post here, or read more extensively on the website of plaintiff Rick Allen. The short version is that Allen’s company Nautilus Productions filmed and photographed excavation and research work performed on Blackbeard’s flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge, which was discovered off the North Carolina coast in 1996. Subsequently, the state made unlicensed uses of Allen’s copyrighted materials, primarily online, and when Allen sued for infringement, North Carolina invoked its sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, which bars citizens or entities from bringing federal suits against the states or its agents. 

In 1990, Congress passed two laws, the Patent Remedy Act and the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act, both designed to abrogate state sovereign immunity specifically for patent and copyright claims where states are alleged to be the infringing parties. In 2015, North Carolina passed “Blackbeard’s Law,” which specifically lays claim to photographic and AV works documenting shipwreck material a “public record.” So, why didn’t Congress’s CRCA protect Allen’s copyrights in this case? Well …

The IP Clause, the Eleventh and the Fourteenth Amendment walk up to the bar …

As we all know, Article I of the Constitution grants Congress the authority to establish copyright and patent laws; and one rationale for that clause, as Madison noted in Federalist 43, was the assumption that the new nation would be best served by uniform (i.e. federal) laws for intellectual property. (In copyright practice this uniformity was not fully adopted until 1978, and then there’s the whole sound recordings morass, but Madison’s seminal hopes were succinctly clear.) 

At the same time, the prospect of erecting a federal court system was a sensitive matter among anti-Federalists, who were hardly sold on the prospect of union among the States in the first place, let alone allowing their State governments to be potentially sued in the new federal courts by citizens of other States. Thus, in response to just such a case arising, the Eleventh Amendment was passed in 1795 to affirm the principle of “state sovereign immunity,” already extant at the founding period.

Without trying to cram a history of sovereign immunity into this post, suffice to say that States are not generally subject to litigation in federal court but for a handful of exceptions, and most of these exceptions derive from the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868. Relevant to Allen v. Cooper, Section 1 of the Fourteenth affirms civil liberties to all Americans, and Section 5 affirms Congress’s authority to pass such laws as may be necessary to enforce Section 1. Thus, sovereign immunity is abrogated where a State’s conduct or law runs afoul of constitutionally protected rights. 

So, it might seem reasonable to assume that the Article I power of Congress to write copyright and patent laws, which secure the intellectual property rights of all U.S. citizens, would naturally fall into the scope of protections affirmed in the Fourteenth Amendment. “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law….” 

In fact, whether one views IP protections as grounded in natural rights or as purely utilitarian forms of property rights, the Fourteenth Amendment, combined with the Article I power, would seem to support Congress’s authority in 1990 to write the pair of laws that explicitly declared that sovereign immunity does not foreclose infringement claims brought by copyright and patent owners against the States. Alas, not so much.

A Very High Standard

Allen’s claim in this case rested on the premise that the 1990 CRCA abrogated the sovereign immunity of North Carolina; but unfortunately, the Supreme Court had already weighed this exact argument with respect to the CRCA’s sibling law, the Patent Reform Act. In the 1999 decision, in a case known as Florida Prepaid, the Court held that the Patent Reform Act did not abrogate sovereign immunity for two intertwined reasons. Article I powers alone are not sufficient grounds for Congress to circumvent sovereign immunity, and this can only be addressed by Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment where there is compelling evidence of a harm being intentionally caused by the State, and where no other remedies (i.e. due process) are available. 

In legal terms, the opinion states, “a Section 5 abrogation of sovereign immunity must be ‘congruent and proportional’ to the Fourteenth Amendment injury it seeks to remedy.” In practical terms that means if Congress wants to salvage the intent of the CRCA and/or the Patent Reform Act, they will need evidence, which proves that intentional infringement by State actors poses a significant threat to the interests and rights of authors and/or inventors. 

In reference to Florida Prepaid, the Kagan opinion reminds us, “Congress, we observed, ‘did not focus’ on intentional or reckless conduct; to the contrary, the legislative record suggested that ‘most state infringement was innocent or at worst negligent.’” Those data are not sufficient to circumvent the sovereign immunity. But that was then.

Especially with regard to works protected by copyright, digital technologies have changed the landscape considerably since 1990—even since 1999. Consequently, State actors (e.g. State universities) have both new means and new motives to infringe more frequently and more harmfully than the pre-digital age. Seemingly aware of these contemporary realities, the Supreme Court’s discussion of Allen v. Cooper connotes discontent with its unavoidable conclusion.

The Court Rules Justly But Hints Justice Is Not Served

The majority opinion written by Justice Kagan, and joined by Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, Sotomayor, and Kavanaugh, with Thomas, Breyer, and Ginsburg concurring, was bound by precedent, namely Florida Prepaid. Allen’s appeal to the CRCA could not hope to overcome the principle of stare decisis, let alone in a matter that sets so high and precise a bar for setting aside states’ rights. Nevertheless, the opinions of the Justices not only present a roadmap that Congress might follow to seal the sovereign immunity loophole for copyright (and patent) owners, it practically calls upon Congress to do so. The Kagan opinion asks…

“All this raises the question:  When does the Fourteenth Amendment care about copyright infringement? Sometimes, no doubt. Copyrights are a form of property. And the Fourteenth Amendment bars the States from “depriv[ing]’ a person of property ‘without due process of law.’ … So an infringement must be intentional, or at least reckless, to come within the reach of the Due Process Clause.” (citations omitted)

Then, in a passage that all but elbows the IP Subcommittee in the ribs …

“Congress likely did not appreciate the importance of linking the scope of its abrogation to the redress or prevention of unconstitutional injuries—and of creating a legislative record to back up that connection. But going forward, Congress will know these rules. And under them, if it detects violations of due process, then it may enact a proportionate response. That kind of tailored statute can effectively stop States from behaving as copyright pirates. Even while respecting constitutional limits, it can bring digital Blackbeards to justice.”

This less than subtle overture to the legislature was one of two points of moderate dissent by Justice Thomas, whose concurring opinion admonished the Court to refrain from advising Congress on the authorship of future legislation. But writing almost the opposite view, the concurring opinion by Justice Breyer, and joined by Justice Ginsburg, laments the unavoidable conclusion necessitated by law, if not by principle. “That our sovereign-immunity precedents can be said to call for so uncertain a voyage suggests that something is amiss,” the Breyer opinion declares. 

Amiss indeed. From the moment Madison and Pinckney drafted the IP Clause, it cannot have been imagined, let alone desired, that the individual States would be left free to appropriate intellectual property from individual citizens. After all, it was a State legislature, in the Massachusetts copyright law of 1786, that declared, “As the principal encouragement such persons can have to make great and beneficial exertions of this nature, must exist in the legal security of the fruits of their study and industry to themselves, and as such security is one of the natural rights of all men, there being no property more peculiarly a man’s own than that which is produced by the labour of his mind.”  

© 2020, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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