Last week, the Copyright Office closed the comment period for its ongoing study on sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a doctrine that makes states and state entities immune from lawsuits under federal law in some cases. Congress sought to eliminate sovereign immunity in the copyright context in a 1990 federal law, but a recent decision by the Supreme Court has overturned the law. Now, the Copyright Office is conducting a study to determine whether copyright infringement by state entities is an ongoing problem warranting a new legislative remedy. It solicited feedback from the public in June.
Authors Alliance has been closely monitoring the comments submitted to the Copyright Office—48 in total. Some comments from rights holders and trade associations alleged that infringement by state entities had occurred in multiple instances, but others argued that the evidence offered did not rise to the level of widespread, intentional infringement which would warrant a new legislative solution.
State Sovereign Immunity
State sovereign immunity immunizes states and state entities—like state government agencies, public hospitals, and state universities—from lawsuits under federal law without their consent, with roots in the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But state sovereign immunity is not absolute, and can be modified or eliminated in some contexts. In 1990, Congress passed the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (“CRCA”), which sought to eliminate state sovereign immunity with regards to copyright claims, known as abrogation, under the authority of the Intellectual Property Clause of the Constitution.
In 1999, a Supreme Court case, Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educational Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, found invalid an attempt to abrogate state sovereign immunity under the Intellectual Property Clause in the patent context. For twenty years, without further word from Congress or the Supreme Court on the matter, the law was left in a state of uncertainty.
Recent Background: Allen v. Cooper
Sovereign immunity within copyright was recently brought to the fore in the copyright community with a Supreme Court case during last year’s term, Allen v. Cooper. The case concerned the state of North Carolina’s use of copyrighted images of a pirate ship found off the coast without permission from the photographer rights holder.
In the case, following the logic of Florida Prepaid, the Court held that Congress lacked the authority to abrogate sovereign immunity under the Intellectual Property Clause, making the attempt to do so in the CRCA invalid. The Court also noted that Congress could have abrogated state sovereign immunity with regards to copyright claims under its 14th Amendment powers, but that the way it did so with the passage of the CRCA did not meet the requirements of its 14th Amendment powers. Under the 14th Amendment, Congress must enact legislative solutions that are “congruent and proportional” to the problems it seeks to address. The Court held that the record before Congress did not show the widespread, intentional infringement which would justify the total abrogation of sovereign immunity for copyright claims in the CRCA.
Responding to the Court’s conclusion and a call from Congress to investigate the matter, the Copyright Office issued a “notice of inquiry” in June 2020, announcing a study that seeks to “evaluate the degree to which copyright owners are experiencing infringement by state entities” and the extent to which these infringements are “based on intentional or reckless conduct.” The Copyright Office also asked whether other remedies available to rights holders under state law were adequate to address the problem of infringement by state entities.
Comments from the Public
The comments—both the initial round and the reply comments—fell into two categories: those that argued that infringement by state entities is widespread and hurts rights holders and creators using examples of these entities asserting sovereign immunity, and those that argue that there is no evidence of widespread infringement, but only anecdotal evidence of alleged infringement. Commenters alleged state infringement in the context of photographs, songs, software, and, to a much lesser extent, literary texts.
With regards to authors of written works specifically, evidence of infringement by state entities was sparse. One rights holder comment argued that several university presses had infringed her copyrights in putting together a book of interviews, but reply comments in favor of sovereign immunity pointed out that fair use and unclear copyright ownership in interviews undercut this claim. The Association of University Presses, for its part, added that academic books do not bear out such a pattern of infringement, and suggested the Copyright Office “look elsewhere” in attempting to develop its record.
The Copyright Alliance—one of the most prominent voices that submitted a comment arguing against sovereign immunity, which several reply comments endorsed specifically—conducted a survey of its members to offer as evidence to the Copyright Office. The survey found that some members believed their works had been infringed by a state entity. It supplemented its survey results with a discussion of a high-profile settlement involving unauthorized uses of news articles on the website for CalPERS, the California state pension fund, over an eight-year period. In that case, the state agency allegedly posted full copies of news articles in a newsletter to employees and a public website without permission, ultimately removing the content and settling. Other commenters, such as the News Media Alliance, also addressed the CalPERS settlement.
Trade organizations representing songwriters and photographers as well as a few individual companies and creators also made comments alleging that infringement by state entities is common based on their experiences extracting licensing fees from college radio stations and obtaining remedies when a state entity uses a photograph in advertising without the rights holder’s permission. One such company, Pixsy, attempted to combine statistics about uses of images by post-secondary institutions with an estimate of what percentage of uses of images online were unauthorized to support an argument that sovereign immunity was depriving its clients of millions of dollars in licensing fees. Similarly, SoundExchange, a digital licensing firm for music, examined the royalties it received from college radio stations and concluded that these were lower than expected due to public institutions’ reliance on sovereign immunity. Several anti-sovereign immunity comments also argued that state entities themselves profit off the licensing of their intellectual property, making sovereign immunity unfair.
On the opposite side of the argument were state universities, their libraries, and organizations representing those entities. Comments in favor of maintaining sovereign immunity emphasized that there is no evidence that infringement is intentional and widespread, and suggested that the major alternative remedy available—an injunction requiring the infringing content be removed—is adequate in most circumstances. Many research librarians stated that in their experience aiding university employees with copyright questions, very few rights holder complaints were brought to their attention.
A joint reply comment from the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities sought to identify weaknesses in the empirical studies undertaken by the Copyright Alliance and SoundExchange: neither investigation accounted for fair use or the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on university practices in the early months of 2020, and the Copyright Alliance study relied on its members subjective beliefs that their copyrights had been infringed by state entities.
In its reply comment, the University of Michigan Library pointed out that the Copyright Office’s call for comments was directed at rights holders, but many of the comments received focused on state universities and state libraries, many of whom were not given an opportunity to chime in. The Association of University Presses submitted a reply comment along similar lines. Emphasizing that scholarship can be hampered by overreaching copyright claims and that state entities cannot afford “the expensive hurdle of nuisance claims,” the Association argued that the Copyright Office should “look elsewhere” for evidence of widespread, intentional infringement than state run universities and libraries. It also noted that the comments against sovereign immunity failed to take fair use into account, focusing on perceived infringement without considering whether these uses would be fair.
The Copyright Office stated in its notice of inquiry that it intends to host one or more public roundtables to seek additional input. Authors Alliance will be monitoring these roundtables and any other forthcoming policymaking activities regarding the abrogating of sovereign immunity going forward, and we will continue to update members and readers as new developments emerge.