Friday, February 26, 2010

Fed. Cir. holds government liable for copyright infringing stamp depicting Korean War Veterans Memorial

In a fascinating and factually unique case that I won’t try to fully summarize, a 2-1 panel majority of the Federal Circuit held that the U.S. government is liable to the sculptor of the soldier figures in the government’s Korean War Veterans Memorial for copyright infringement based on a commemorative U.S. postage stamp bearing a photograph of the soldier figures. Gaylord v. United States, No. 2009-5044 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 25, 2010).

The sculptor was a subcontractor. The prime contractor for the Memorial had a contract with the government providing that government would own the copyrights in the end product and that the project was a work made for hire. The government paid the subcontractor/sculptor $775,000 to create the figures. The sculptor later registered copyrights in the figures.

The majority ignored the government contract because the parties (curiously) didn’t brief it, and ruled that: (1) the sculptor owned valid copyrights; (2) the stamp was not a fair use; and (3) the government was not a joint author because the only contributions made by the government’s designees were suggestions (i.e., uncopyrightable ideas). The majority remanded for a determination of damages—which will probably be substantial in light of the fact that the government sold $17 million worth of stamps.

In dissent, Judge Newman lambasted the majority for ignoring the contract and for ignoring a statute that provides that there is no right of action against the government for infringement of copyrights inuring in works created in service to the government (28 U.S.C. § 1498).

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