High Court Allows Immunity for State in Copyright Suits

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, exposing a loophole in federal copyright law, said Monday that book publishers, composers, film makers and computer programmers may not go to court to charge state universities, public schools, libraries and other public agencies with illegally using their copyrighted works.

The high court action, in denying an appeal from a computer software firm, could mean a loss of millions of dollars in fees for companies whose copyrighted products are used illegally by government agencies, copyright holders said.

The justices left standing a ruling by the federal appeals court in California, which said that the Constitution forbids damage suits against states or state agencies unless Congress has specifically said otherwise. In the 1976 Copyright Act, Congress said that all damage suits for copyright infringements must go into federal courts--not state courts--but it said nothing about allowing states to be sued.

The unintended result, said the appellate court, is to “allow states to violate the federal copyright laws with virtual immunity.”


The Assn. of American Publishers, the Information Industry Assn., the Music Publishers Assn. and the major Hollywood film corporations, among others, urged the high court to hear a test suit against UCLA and to overturn the appellate court ruling. But without comment, the appeal was denied (BV Engineering vs. UCLA, 88-1099).

“The Supreme Court has allowed this (1976) law to be gutted,” said Michael A. Ladra, a Palo Alto lawyer who represented BV Engineering, a computer software maker. “I guess they are saying it is up to Congress to change the law.”

In 1986, BV Engineering sued UCLA, contending that its professors had illegally copied seven of its computer programs. But Judge Harry L. Hupp dismissed the suit on grounds that UCLA, as an agency of the state, is immune from federal suits under the 11th Amendment. Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena affirmed that conclusion.

Possible Threat Cited

These rulings “permit a state university to purchase one copy of a computer program and provide unlimited copies to each of its students,” Ladra said in his brief to the court. “Such an outcome would be financially devastating to authors of copyrighted works and threatens the future of emerging intellectual property industries.”

The publishers and the film corporations complained in their briefs that state prisons, libraries, state hospitals and schools regularly violate the 1976 laws by illegally copying books or videos.

University lawyers deny that copyrighted materials are often misused.

“There are no widespread abuses of the copyright law that we know of,” said UC attorney George Marchand. UCLA professors, he added, thought it was legal to make some copies of the BV Engineering program and they immediately quit the copying program when the company objected.


In other actions, the court:

- Let stand a federal appellate court ruling from California that forbids cities, school boards and counties to use at-large election districts if they have the effect of discriminating against minority candidates (Watsonville vs. Gomez, 88-1236).

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a suit by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund against the city of Watsonville, said that Watsonville discriminated against Latinos by electing its seven-member city council through citywide elections rather than through districts.

Attorney Joaquin Avila of Fremont, who won the case in the appeals court, said that the outcome may force many California localities to switch to district elections.


- Agreed to let an attorney for the Bush Administration join the April 26 oral argument in a Missouri abortion case (Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, 88-605). Lawyers for Missouri are seeking to revive their state law prohibiting the use of public facilities or employees for assisting in abortion. The Administration is seeking a much broader ruling that would overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal.

- Turned down an appeal from “Freeway Killer” William Bonin, who was convicted of murdering 14 young men in Los Angeles and Orange counties in 1979 and 1980. Bonin, who is now on Death Row at San Quentin, contended that the instructions given to his jury were unfair.

On a 7-2 vote, the justices dismissed the appeal (Bonin vs. California, 88-6341) without comment. Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall routinely dissent in all death penalty cases in the belief that capital punishment is barred by the 8th Amendment. A public defender in Los Angeles says that he expects to file further appeals on Bonin’s behalf.

- Agreed to decide whether the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom forbids a state to fire a drug counselor who ate an illegal hallucinogenic drug as part of a religious service. The case concerns two American Indians who were fired from their jobs and denied unemployment benefits after they used peyote at a religious ceremony (Employment Division vs. Smith, 88-1213).


- Allowed the partial merger of Detroit’s two newspapers to proceed (Michigan Citizens for an Independent Press vs. Thornburgh, A-695). Former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III authorized the merger of the business operations on the grounds that either the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News would fail without relief. A group of advertisers, employees and readers urged the court to block the merger, but their request was denied.