17 U.S. Code § 301 - Preemption with respect to other laws
Single Federal System. Section 301, one of the bedrock provisions of the bill, would accomplish a fundamental and significant change in the present law. Instead of a dual system of “common law copyright” for unpublished works and statutory copyright for published works, which has been the system in effect in the United States since the first copyright statute in 1790, the bill adopts a single system of Federal statutory copyright from creation. Under section 301 a work would obtain statutory protection as soon as it is “created” or, as that term is defined in section 101 when it is “fixed in a copy or phonorecord for the first time.” Common law copyright protection for works coming within the scope of the statute would be abrogated, and the concept of publication would lose its all-embracing importance as a dividing line between common law and statutory protection and between both of these forms of legal protection and the public domain.
By substituting a single Federal system for the present anachronistic, uncertain, impractical, and highly complicated dual system, the bill would greatly improve the operation of the copyright law and would be much more effective in carrying out the basic constitutional aims of uniformity and the promotion of writing and scholarship. The main arguments in favor of a single Federal system can be summarized as follows:
1. One of the fundamental purposes behind the copyright clause of the Constitution, as shown in Madison’s comments in The Federalist, was to promote national uniformity and to avoid the practical difficulties of determining and enforcing an author’s rights under the differing laws and in the separate courts of the various States. Today when the methods for dissemination of an author’s work are incomparably broader and faster than they were in 1789, national uniformity in copyright protection is even more essential than it was then to carry out the constitutional intent.
2. “Publication,” perhaps the most important single concept under the present law, also represents its most serious defect. Although at one time when works were disseminated almost exclusively through printed copies, “publication” could serve as a practical dividing line between common law and statutory protection, this is no longer true. With the development of the 20th-century communications revolution, the concept of publication has become increasingly artificial and obscure. To cope with the legal consequences of an established concept that has lost much of its meaning and justification, the courts have given “publication” a number of diverse interpretations, some of them radically different. Not unexpectedly, the results in individual cases have become unpredictable and often unfair. A single Federal system would help to clear up this chaotic situation.
3. Enactment of section 301 would also implement the “limited times” provision of the Constitution [Const. Art. I, § 8, cl. 8], which has become distorted under the traditional concept of “publication.” Common law protection in “unpublished” works is now perpetual, no matter how widely they may be disseminated by means other than “publication”; the bill would place a time limit on the duration of exclusive rights in them. The provision would also aid scholarship and the dissemination of historical materials by making unpublished, undisseminated manuscripts available for publication after a reasonable period.
4. Adoption of a uniform national copyright system would greatly improve international dealings in copyrighted material. No other country has anything like our present dual system. In an era when copyrighted works can be disseminated instantaneously to every country on the globe, the need for effective international copyright relations, and the concomitant need for national uniformity, assume ever greater importance.
Under section 301, the statute would apply to all works created after its effective date [Jan 1, 1978], whether or not they are ever published or disseminated. With respect to works created before the effective date of the statute [Jan. 1, 1978] and still under common law protection, section 303 of the statute would provide protection from that date on, and would guarantee a minimum period of statutory copyright.
Preemption of State Law. The intention of section 301 is to preempt and abolish any rights under the common law or statutes of a State that are equivalent to copyright and that extend to works coming within the scope of the Federal copyright law. The declaration of this principle in section 301 is intended to be stated in the clearest and most unequivocal language possible, so as to foreclose any conceivable misinterpretation of its unqualified intention that Congress shall act preemptively, and to avoid the development of any vague borderline areas between State and Federal protection.
Under section 301(a) all “legal or equitable rights that are equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright as specified by section 106” are governed exclusively by the Federal copyright statute if the works involved are “works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression and come within the subject matter of copyright as specified by sections 102 and 103.” All corresponding State laws, whether common law or statutory, are preempted and abrogated. Regardless of when the work was created and whether it is published or unpublished, disseminated or undisseminated, in the public domain or copyrighted under the Federal statute, the States cannot offer it protection equivalent to copyright. Section 1338 of title 28, United States Code, also makes clear that any action involving rights under the Federal copyright law would come within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal courts. The preemptive effect of section 301 is limited to State laws; as stated expressly in subsection (d) of section 301, there is no intention to deal with the question of whether Congress can or should offer the equivalent of copyright protection under some constitutional provision other than the patent-copyright clause of article 1, section 8 [Const. Art. I, § 8, cl. 8].
As long as a work fits within one of the general subject matter categories of sections 102 and 103, the bill prevents the States from protecting it even if it fails to achieve Federal statutory copyright because it is too minimal or lacking in originality to qualify, or because it has fallen into the public domain. On the other hand section 301(b) explicitly preserves common law copyright protection for one important class of works: works that have not been “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” Examples would include choreography that has never been filmed or notated, an extemporaneous speech, “original works of authorship” communicated solely through conversations or live broadcasts, and a dramatic sketch or musical composition improvised or developed from memory and without being recorded or written down. As mentioned above in connection with section 102, unfixed works are not included in the specified “subject matter of copyright.” They are therefore not affected by the preemption of section 301, and would continue to be subject to protection under State statute or common law until fixed in tangible form.
The preemption of rights under State law is complete with respect to any work coming within the scope of the bill, even though the scope of exclusive rights given the work under the bill is narrower than the scope of common law rights in the work might have been.
Representatives of printers, while not opposed to the principle of section 301, expressed concern about its potential impact on protection of preliminary advertising copy and layouts prepared by printers. They argued that this material is frequently “pirated” by competitors, and that it would be a substantial burden if, in order to obtain full protection, the printer would have to make registrations and bear the expense and bother of suing in Federal rather than State courts. On the other hand, these practical problems are essentially procedural rather than substantive, and the proposal for a special exemption to preserve common law rights equivalent to copyright in unpublished advertising material cannot be justified. Moreover, subsection (b), discussed below, will preserve other legal grounds on which the printers can protect themselves against “pirates” under State laws.
In a general way subsection (b) of section 301 represents the obverse of subsection (a). It sets out, in broad terms and without necessarily being exhaustive, some of the principal areas of protection that preemption would not prevent the States from protecting. Its purpose is to make clear, consistent with the 1964 Supreme Court decisions in Sears, Roebuck & Co., v. Stiffel Co., 376 U.S. 225 [84 S.Ct. 784, 11 L.Ed.2d 661, rehearing denied 84 S.Ct. 1131, 376 U.S. 973, 12 L.Ed.2d 87], and Compco Corp. v. Day-Brite Lighting, Inc., 376 U.S. 234 [84 S.Ct. 779, 11 L.Ed.2d 669, rehearing denied 84 S.Ct. 1162, 377 U.S. 913, 12 L.Ed.2d 183], that preemption does not extend to causes of action, or subject matter outside the scope of the revised Federal copyright statute.
The numbered clauses of subsection (b) list three general areas left unaffected by the preemption: (1) subject matter that does not come within the subject matter of copyright; (2) causes of action arising under State law before the effective date of the statute [Jan. 1, 1978]; and (3) violations of rights that are not equivalent to any of the exclusive rights under copyright.
The examples in clause (3), while not exhaustive, are intended to illustrate rights and remedies that are different in nature from the rights comprised in a copyright and that may continue to be protected under State common law or statute. The evolving common law rights of “privacy,” “publicity,” and trade secrets, and the general laws of defamation and fraud, would remain unaffected as long as the causes of action contain elements, such as an invasion of personal rights or a breach of trust or confidentiality, that are different in kind from copyright infringement. Nothing in the bill derogates from the rights of parties to contract with each other and to sue for breaches of contract; however, to the extent that the unfair competition concept known as “interference with contract relations” is merely the equivalent of copyright protection, it would be preempted.
The last example listed in clause (3)—“deceptive trade practices such as passing off and false representation”—represents an effort to distinguish between those causes of action known as “unfair competition” that the copyright statute is not intended to preempt and those that it is. Section 301 is not intended to preempt common law protection in cases involving activities such as false labeling, fraudulent representation, and passing off even where the subject matter involved comes within the scope of the copyright statute.
“Misappropriation” is not necessarily synonymous with copyright infringement, and thus a cause of action labeled as “misappropriation” is not preempted if it is fact based neither on a right within the general scope of copyright as specified by section 106 nor on a right equivalent thereto. For example, state law should have the flexibility to afford a remedy (under traditional principles of equity) against a consistent pattern of unauthorized appropriation by a competitor of the facts (i.e., not the literary expression) constituting “hot” news, whether in the traditional mold of International News Service v. Associated Press, 248 U.S. 215 (1918) [39 S.Ct. 68, 63 L.Ed. 211], or in the newer form of data updates from scientific, business, or financial data bases. Likewise, a person having no trust or other relationship with the proprietor of a computerized data base should not be immunized from sanctions against electronically or cryptographically breaching the proprietor’s security arrangements and accessing the proprietor’s data. The unauthorized data access which should be remediable might also be achieved by the intentional interception of data transmissions by wire, microwave or laser transmissions, or by the common unintentional means of “crossed” telephone lines occasioned by errors in switching.
The proprietor of data displayed on the cathode ray tube of a computer terminal should be afforded protection against unauthorized printouts by third parties (with or without improper access), even if the data are not copyrightable. For example, the data may not be copyrighted because they are not fixed in a tangible medium of expression (i.e., the data are not displayed for a period or not more than transitory duration).
Nothing contained in section 301 precludes the owner of a material embodiment of a copy or a phonorecord from enforcing a claim of conversion against one who takes possession of the copy or phonorecord without consent.
A unique and difficult problem is presented with respect to the status of sound recordings fixed before February 12, 1972, the effective date of the amendment bringing recordings fixed after that date under Federal copyright protection. In its testimony during the 1975 hearings, the Department of Justice pointed out that, under section 301 as then written:
This language could be read as abrogating the anti-piracy laws now existing in 29 states relating to pre-February 15, 1972, sound recordings on the grounds that these statutes proscribe activities violating rights equivalent to * * * the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright. * * * Certainly such a result cannot have been intended for it would likely effect the immediate resurgence of piracy of pre-February 15, 1972, sound recordings.
The Department recommended that section 301(b) be amended to exclude sound recordings fixed prior to February 15, 1972 from the effect of the preemption.
The Senate adopted this suggestion when it passed S. 22. The result of the Senate amendment would be to leave pre-1972 sound recordings as entitled to perpetual protection under State law, while post-1972 recordings would eventually fall into the public domain as provided in the bill.
The Committee recognizes that, under recent court decisions, pre-1972 recordings are protected by State statute or common law, and that should not all be thrown into the public domain instantly upon the coming into effect of the new law. However, it cannot agree that they should in effect be accorded perpetual protection, as under the Senate amendment, and it has therefore revised clause (4) to establish a future date for the pre-emption to take effect. The date chosen is February 15, 2047 which is 75 years from the effective date of the statute extending Federal protection to recordings.
Subsection (c) makes clear that nothing contained in Title 17 annuls or limits any rights or remedies under any other Federal statute.
The date of enactment of the Classics Protection and Access Act, referred to in subsec. (c), is the date of enactment of title II of Pub. L. 115–264, which was approved Oct. 11, 2018.
2018—Subsec. (c). Pub. L. 115–264, § 202(a)(1), added subsec. (c) and struck out former subsec. (c) which read as follows: “With respect to sound recordings fixed before February 15, 1972, any rights or remedies under the common law or statutes of any State shall not be annulled or limited by this title until February 15, 2067. The preemptive provisions of subsection (a) shall apply to any such rights and remedies pertaining to any cause of action arising from undertakings commenced on and after February 15, 2067. Notwithstanding the provisions of section 303, no sound recording fixed before February 15, 1972, shall be subject to copyright under this title before, on, or after February 15, 2067.”
1998—Subsec. (c). Pub. L. 105–298 substituted “2067” for “2047” wherever appearing.
1990—Subsec. (b)(4). Pub. L. 101–650, § 705, added par. (4).
Subsec. (f). Pub. L. 101–650, § 605, added subsec. (f).
1988—Subsec. (e). Pub. L. 100–568 added subsec. (e).
Amendment by section 705 Pub. L. 101–650 applicable to any architectural work created on or after Dec. 1, 1990, and any architectural work, that, on Dec. 1, 1990, is unconstructed and embodied in unpublished plans or drawings, except that protection for such architectural work under this title terminates on Dec. 31, 2002, unless the work is constructed by that date, see section 706 of Pub. L. 101–650, set out as a note under section 101 of this title.
Amendment by Pub. L. 100–568 effective Mar. 1, 1989, with any cause of action arising under this title before such date being governed by provisions in effect when cause of action arose, see section 13 of Pub. L. 100–568, set out as a note under section 101 of this title.
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