What Does the Valancourt Decision Mean for Most Creators?

As discussed in an earlier post, Valancourt Books, a small, on-demand publisher, filed suit against the Copyright Office and the Department of Justice and argued that the Office’s demand for physical copies of published books is unconstitutional. Valancourt alleged that the authority granted by §407 of the Copyright Act to demand the copies (or be fined) is a violation of both the First Amendment speech right and the Fifth Amendment prohibition against a government taking of private property without “just compensation.” This week, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Valancourt’s Fifth Amendment takings claim and declined to weigh the First Amendment claim.[1]

We agree with Valancourt that Section 407’s demand for physical copies of works, as applied by the Copyright Office here, represents an uncompensated taking of private property under the Takings Clause. We need not reach Valancourt’s First Amendment claim, as it seeks the same relief through that challenge.

Background (Summarized from Post of August 2021)

Valancourt produces books on-demand from old, rare, and hard-to-find manuscripts, including some dating back to the 18th century. Although many of the underlying works Valancourt republishes are long in the public domain, the companion material in their editions (e.g., scholarly introductions and footnotes) are subjects of copyright; and some of the manuscripts they print are still under copyright protection and used by permission of living authors or their estates. So, although the publisher does not register its books with the Copyright Office, it does place copyright notices in the front matter to alert readers that either the underlying manuscript and/or supporting materials are protected.

In 2018, Valancourt began receiving letters from the Copyright Acquisitions Division (CAD) of the Copyright Office demanding physical copies under the statutory deposit copy provisions of §407. The initial demand was for two copies of each of Valancourt’s 341 published titles. The publisher stated that this represented a significant financial and logistical burden and, finding no satisfactory relief in the Office’s compromise offers, they filed suit on the constitutional allegations. The district court ruled in favor of the government, and the DC Circuit has now reversed.

The Heart of the Decision

The most substantive aspect of the Valancourt decision is the court’s holding that the demand for physical copies is a taking because the publisher does not receive any benefit for supplying the copies. “A voluntary exchange for a benefit…does not exist if the purported ‘benefit’ is illusory,” the opinion states. Because copyright attaches automatically to any work fixed in a medium of expression, a party like Valancourt truly gets nothing in exchange for providing physical copies.

What the Valancourt decision means for most individual creators is not much, but it may be easy to confuse the issues here with the registration process (§408) in which deposit copies are a requirement of the registration application. Many creators are aware that in order to apply for copyright registration, they have to send in a copy of their work. That is governed by §408. In contrast, §407 allows the Library of Congress – through the Copyright Office – to demand a copy of any work published in the United States. Sending a copy for registration under §408 can satisfy the requirement under §407, but because Valancourt does not register the books it publishes, that was not relevant here. Consequently, the Office’s demand for physical copies (based solely on the act of publication) is acutely unjust in this instance because Valancourt gets absolutely nothing for providing free copies for the Library’s collection at its expense. This is distinctive from the deposit copies required for registration.

The deposit copy submitted for a registration application, whether electronic or physical, is less likely to be viewed as a taking because the applicant voluntarily obtains key enforcement advantages by complying with the registration requirements. Registration is not mandatory for copyright rights to subsist but is (among other things) a prerequisite to filing an infringement claim in federal court. Physical copies are required with a registration application if the work is published at the time of the application and if the work is first published in physical form, but again, because this is a condition of registration, and registration provides tangible benefits, this deposit condition is less likely to be found a taking.

That said, where the Office may exercise its right to demand copies based on publication (§407), the Valancourt decision may have some interesting implications. For example, if an author registers a final-edit manuscript in electronic form and later publishes that material, she (or the publisher) may receive a demand to provide physical copies or face a fine for failing to comply. But after Valancourt, the demand for physical copies solely at the threshold of publication, would seem to be a taking because, again, the author/publisher gets no additional value in exchange for providing the copies. The underlying registration (e.g., in the previously unpublished manuscript) is not invalidated by a failure to provide post-publication physical copies.

This is More About the Library of Congress than Copyright Law

In Valancourt, we see one example of the tension that can arise between the interests of the Library of Congress and the efficient administration of copyright protection for creators. As discussed in other posts, the often-confusing formalities in U.S. copyright law are largely due to the historic, but not always compatible, relationship between the two institutions. The Copyright Act of 1870 consolidated registration and deposit at the Library for the purpose of growing the collection, and in 1897, the Copyright Office was established within the Library as both the administrative and expert agency.

But as the outcome in Valancourt highlights, the author/publisher’s copyright interests and the Library’s authority to demand copies are in conflict. With 1870 barely visible in the rearview mirror, the Library still wants free materials, but Valancourt shows that this mission is not wholly predicated on the author/publisher’s interest in obtaining the full advantages of copyright protection. And perhaps this is especially true in a modern, digital-age market.

Notwithstanding the unpublished manuscript scenario above, most publishers send physical deposit copies with registration applications for published—or about to be published—books.[2] But if the Valancourt decision stands, it is conceivable that many publishers, especially smaller presses, will argue that they are allowed to submit electronic copies or must be compensated for the cost of sending physical copies. We shall see whether the government appeals this decision to the Supreme Court, but in the meantime, most creators can file this case under the heading Conversation for Copyright Nerds and continue registering their works with electronic deposits. In any event, please remember to register immediately—before your work is published and before it can be infringed – to get the full protection of the Copyright Act.

[1] FWIW, I wonder whether Valancourt’s speech claim would have merit because it seems that Plaintiff would have to show that the demand for physical copies, though enforced inconsistently, is content based. City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, LLC, 142 S. Ct. 1464 (2022).

[2] There are good reasons to do this, not the least being that the physical book is the final draft of all the material being registered.

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

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