Wheaton v. Peters

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Wheaton v. Peters

The 1834 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 591, 8 L. Ed. 1055, delineated the differences between rights in a Copyright at Common Law and in federal statutory law.

Wheaton was the first significant copyright decision by the Supreme Court. A copyright grants the creator of an artistic or creative work a limited Monopoly in its use, based on the public policy that such a monopoly encourages creativity and invention. In Wheaton, the Court established the basic foundation of U.S. copyright law, holding that the statutory requirements for securing a copyright must be strictly followed and that copyright exists primarily for the benefit of society and not the creator.

The case centered on whether Supreme Court decisions, which were public documents, could be copyrighted. Henry Wheaton, the official reporter of decisions for the Court between 1816 and 1827, sued Richard Peters Jr., his successor, for violating the copyright Wheaton obtained for his twelve volumes of Supreme Court decisions, entitled Wheaton's Reports. Peters had published and sold a book called Condensed Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of the United States, which contained every Court decision from its inception to 1827, when Peters's Report began publication. Wheaton charged that the Condensed Reports contained all the reports of cases in the first volume of Wheaton's Reports without any significant abbreviation or alteration and that the publication and sale of this work infringed on his copyright. Wheaton sought an Injunction to stop the sale of the work.

Peters denied that the publication infringed any copyright Wheaton claimed to possess. In addition, Peters asserted that Wheaton did not have a valid copyright because he failed to satisfy all the federal statutory requirements that were essential for the creation of copyright. The trial court agreed with Peters and dismissed the lawsuit. Wheaton then appealed to the Supreme Court.The Court affirmed the lower court decision and made three rulings that defined copyright law in the United States. First, the Court rejected Wheaton's contention that he possessed a perpetual copyright in his Reports under the common law of Pennsylvania. Though Wheaton may have complied with Pennsylvania procedures on securing a copyright, the Court held that the common law of Pennsylvania did not address the issue of copyrights and therefore the state could not grant any protection to Literary Property.

The Court also rejected Wheaton's argument that he had complied with the applicable provisions of the federal copyright law and therefore was entitled to copyright protection. The 1802 copyright law required a series of steps to secure a copyright: a book was to be deposited with the clerk of the appropriate district court, the record made by the clerk was to be inserted in the first or second page, public notice was to be given in the newspapers, and within six months after publication a copy of the book was to be deposited in the State Department.

During the trial, there was uncertainty about whether Wheaton gave public notice and deposited the book in the State Department. Wheaton asserted that he had completed the first two acts, which were sufficient to perfect his copyright. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed. It stated that the significance and wisdom of a law is a matter for the legislature, and not the Court, to determine. Therefore, all four steps were required to perfect title.

Finally, the Court held that no reporter could have any copyright in the written opinions issued by the Court and that the Court could not grant such a right to any reporter. This holding was essential to the free flow of public information, for if Wheaton could control through copyright the distribution of court decisions, then other private actors could copyright and publish other public information, such as congressional debates or statutes, and restrict its dissemination.

Further readings

Abrams, Howard B. 1985. "The Historic Foundation of American Copyright Law: Exploding the Myth of Common Law Copyright." Wayne Law Review 29 (spring).

Joyce, Craig. 1985. "Wheaton v. Peters: The Untold Story of the Early Reporters." Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook.