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District Court Invalidates Portion of Copyright Act as Unconstitutional; Holds State University and Employee Immune From Claim for Copyright Infringement

Quick conversation with Jonathan Pink, partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith

Minow: Could you tell us about the new decision about the state university professor who was sued for copyright infringement?

Pink: The case is Marketing Information Masters v. The Trustees of the California State University.[.pdf] For several years prior to the suit, the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl had hired Marketing Information to calculate the fiscal impact the Holiday Bowl (college football game) had on the City of San Diego. When Marketing Information tripled its fee, the Holiday Bowl hired San Diego State University to conduct the 2004 survey, but instructed the school to follow the format of earlier years.

When San Diego State delivered its 2004 report to Pacific Life, Marketing Information obtained a copy and cried foul. Marketing Information alleged that in creating the 2004 report, the school and one of its professors had copied large portions of Marketing Information’s 2003 report.

The Trustees and the professor filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that the Eleventh Amendment provided them with immunity to a claim for copyright infringement. While Marketing Information argued that the Eleventh Amendment did not apply because Congress passed the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act which expressly provided that “[a]ny State, instrumentality of a state… or employee of a State or instrumentality of a State… shall not be immune, under the Eleventh Amendment” to a suit for copyright infringement. 17 U.S.C. section 511(a), the defendants argued that the Clarification Act was an invalid exercise of Congress’s power.

The District Court agreed with the defendants, finding that the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act “was not passed pursuant to a valid exercise of [Congress's] Fourteenth Amendment enforcement powers,” and “does not constitute a valid abrogation of state sovereign immunity.”

In short, the Court invalidated the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act as unconstitutional, thus ruling that a State, employee of a State (acting within his or her official capacity) or instrumentality of a State cannot be held liable for copyright infringement.

Minow: Do all state employees have immunity for copyright infringement?

Pink: No. The Court’s ruling only applies to state employees acting within their “official capcity.” This gets a little tricky because a state official who has acted in violation of federal law will be stripped of his or her “official” character and will not be immune to suit under the 11th Amendment. Thus, for example, in the Marketing case, plaintiff may not seek damages against the professor in his official capacity as that it would violate the state’s sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment, but the professor likely would be “stripped of his official or representative character” and would be “subjected in his person to the consequences of his individual conduct” if plaintiff can show that the professor violated plaintiff’s federally protected copyright. In other words, a state employee will be subjected to suit in his or her individual capacity even though he or she had been acting as an agent of the State if it is shown that the employee’s conduct was ultra vires his or her delegated authority, e.g. by violating a federal law.

Note: Justia is sponsoring Marketing Information Masters as a featured case. (Thanks, Nick.) 

UPDATE: Interview Follow-Up with Jonathan Pink HERE

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Jonathan Pink represented the defendants in Marketing Information Masters, Inc. v. The Board of Trustees of the California State University System, et. al. (06cv 1682 JAH, SDCA February 5, 2008). Pink is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith.