Potpourri

You made your case

In cases controlled by governing legal texts, always begin with the words of the text to establish the major premise.

As an example of textual interpretation, consider the positions that advocates might take in a case that is easy to visualize. Let’s say that the Jacksons, a couple living in Santa Fe, are divorcing . John is an unemployed carpenter, and his wife Jill is a successful novelist who has written five best – selling mysteries. John lays claim to half her future income on those novels, all of which were written during the marriage. Jill’s attorney uncovers a curious provision in the Copyright Act:

When an individual author’s ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, has not previously been transferred voluntarily by that author, no action by any government body or other official or organization purporting to seize, expropriate, transfer, or exercise rights of ownership with respect to the copyright, or any of the exclusive rights under the copyright, shall be given effect under this title ….

This provision becomes the major premise in Jill’s attorney’s syllogism:

Major premise: Section 201(e) of the Copyright Act nullifies any government’s attempt to “transfer … any of the exclusive rights” conferred by an author’s copyright.

Minor premise: Treating Jill Jackson’s royalties as marital property would transfer her exclusive right to those royalties conferred by her copyright.

Conclusion: Section 201(e) of the Copyright Act nullifies New Mexico’s attempt to treat Jill Jackson’s royalties on her books as marital property.

An excellent argument. But the debate doesn’t end there.

It turns out that the only federal appellate case on point is against Jill. In Rodrigue v. Rodrigue, the Fifth Circuit held that the Copyright Act does not preempt state community – property doctrines. The Fifth Circuit’s syllogism, on which John’s lawyer relies, shows the importance of reading the entire statue before interpreting one of its provisions.

That syllogism was as follows:

Major premise: Section 106 of the Copyright Act defines only five “exclusive rights”: reproduction, adaptation, publication, performance, and display.

Minor premise: The future income stream from Jill Jackson’s copyrighted works is not a right of repro reproduction, adaptation, publication, performance, and display.

Conclusion: The future income stream from Jill Jackson’s copyrighted works is not an “exclusive right” insulated from state transfer by Sec 201(e).

Both sides have begun with the words of the statute, but they have crafted different arguments by emphasizing different aspects of the language – as is possible with even such a short, seemingly straightforward provision. By the way, the perspective reader will have observed that neither Jill’s syllogism nor John’s takes account of the fact that Sec 201(e) protects nor just “exclusive rights” but also “rights of ownership” – a fact that might favor Jill.

Leave a Comment