First Circuit Decision on Copyright Preemption

by Lee Gesmer on December 18, 2007

The First Circuit has published a complex decision involving copyright preemption of a state law claim for an accounting of profits between co-authors of a copyrighted work. The case, Cambridge Literary Properties, Ltd. v.W. GoebelPorzellanfabrik G.m.b.H & Co. KG (1st Cir. Dec. 13, 2007), has a tortured procedural history. In fact, the First Circuit issued an earlier decision in the case as far back as 2002.

The case is quite complex, and involves the chain of copyright ownership in the famous Hummel figurines designed in Germany in 1931 The fundamental holding is that the federal Copyright statute bars a state law action for an accounting of profits between co-owners (co-owners of a copyright work are have a duty to account to each other for profits) because the condition precedent for that claim — co-authorship status — is premised on copyright law, which has a three year statute of limitations. Here the co-ownership claim was barred by this statute of limitations.

First Circuit Judge Conrad K, Cyr, who recently assumed senior status on the First Circuit, wrote a strong dissent, calling the majority’s decision “unprecedented and potentially pernicious,” and arguing that the majority improperly interposed federal law to frustrate what was properly a state law issue.

This case addresses some very thorny issues involving the intersection of federal copyright law and state law claims, and will bear close scrutiny by litigants whose cases raise issues of federal preemption or state-federal jurisdiction.

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