It turns out President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court was a partner at a firm that handled intellectual property litigation. In fact she ruled on an important copyright case, Tasini vs. New York Times, while she served as a federal judge for the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York. However, the case was later reversed by the appellate court and was then appealed again by the U.S. Supreme Court, in New York Times Co v. Tasini 533 U.S. 483 (2001). The case involved a claim of copyright infringement brought by freelance journalists against the New York Times and other news organizations (the “publishers”), when the publishers distributed articles written by the journalist to Lexis/Nexis, a legal database, without the permission of the journalist. The publishers claimed a privilege accorded collective work copyright owners by §201(c) of the Copyright Act.
At the District Court level, Sotomayor ruled in favor of the publishers, claiming that they were entitled to reproduce the articles within Lexis/Nexis under the protection of the collective work copyright. (The collective copyright entitles the copyright owner rights to the collection as whole, but not to the individual authored works which are separately copyrighted works). However, both the appellate court and the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Sotomayor’s decision ruling in favor of the freelance journalists.
The Supreme Court reasoned that as the articles appear in Lexis/Nexis, they do not appear as a collective work, rather “[w]hen the user conducts a search, each article appears as a separate item within the search result.” The Court further stated “the Database does not reproduce and distribute the article ‘as part of’ either the original edition or a ‘revision’ of that edition.”