Concept

Wheaton v. Peters

Résumé
Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 591 (1834), was the first United States Supreme Court ruling on copyright. The case upheld the power of Congress to make a grant of copyright protection subject to conditions and rejected the doctrine of a common law copyright in published works. The Court also declared that there could be no copyright in the Court's own judicial decisions. The case arose out of the printing of the Supreme Court's own opinions. Henry Wheaton, the third reporter of decisions, had compiled the opinions of the Court, complete with annotations and summaries of the arguments in Court. This was useful material but made the volumes of his reports costly and out of the reach of most lawyers. His successor as reporter, Richard Peters, in addition to publishing the current volumes of reports, had gone over his predecessor's work, eliminated the arguments of counsel and other material beyond the opinions themselves, and published an abridged edition reducing twenty-four volumes into six. The Reporter's salary of $1,000 per year did not cover the full expenses of preparing the reports, and the Reporters relied on sales of their books to recoup their costs. By creating more affordable volumes, Peters devastated the market for Wheaton's more expensive ones. Wheaton sued Peters in Pennsylvania and lost in the circuit court. The judge, Joseph Hopkinson, ruled that copyright is purely the creation of statute and that one must comply with the formal requirements for copyright, such as registering the copyright and placing a copyright notice in the work, in order to receive protection. Judge Hopkinson also ruled that there was no federal common law; one must look to the states for common law; and even then, the states did not necessarily adopt the entire English common law if there even was a common law copyright. Wheaton appealed to the Supreme Court. Justice John McLean, who had publishing experience as the founder of an Ohio newspaper, wrote the opinion of the Court.
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