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Does a claim arise under the copyright laws when a critical allegation is that a party's use of a copyrighted work is unpermitted and infringing because such use was limited by the terms of a contract? The federal courts of appeals have confronted this question in a number of recent cases. Many have concluded that federal jurisdiction exists, reversing district court judgments of dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Despite these repeated attempts to resolve the matter, however, this question continues to confound the courts, which lack a clear approach to defining when a claim arises under the copyright laws for purposes of federal jurisdiction. Although numerous courts of appeals and district courts have analyzed the issue, the Supreme Court has never specifically addressed this question.

In the past decade the Supreme Court has rendered several decisions addressing when a case arises under federal law, and in Christianson v. Colt Industries Operating Corp. it addressed the specific question of when a case arises under the patent laws. Although the Court has yet to consider copyright jurisdiction directly, its recent decisions in these analogous areas may provide better guidance to the lower courts. These decisions also allow the courts to consider whether copyright claims present any unique problems that call for a different analysis in determining whether a case arises under the copyright laws.

Part I of this Article analyzes 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1338 and some of the Supreme Court decisions that shed light on their meaning. Part II reviews the cases that have specifically focused on copyright jurisdiction. Drawing heavily on Supreme Court decisions in the patent jurisdiction and federal question jurisdiction areas, the lower courts have developed two principal and inconsistent approaches to this question. One group of courts attempts to discern the heart of the case and the plaintiff's purpose in bringing it, while the other looks only to the language of the plaintiff's complaint. As Part III then explains, each of these approaches is seriously flawed. After reviewing alternative methods that scholars have proposed for determining federal question jurisdiction, Part III analyzes the purposes and policies underlying copyright law and the countervailing state interests in contract law. Based on this review, this Article concludes that courts should resolve questions of copyright jurisdiction by testing the relative weight of these federal and state interests. Federal courts should exercise jurisdiction over all cases in which federal copyright law interests outweigh state contract law concerns. Finally, Part III describes how courts should weigh these interests in some typical copyright jurisdiction conflicts to insure that the important federal copyright matters are heard in federal court, while allowing state courts to decide cases in which state interests predominate.

Recommended Citation

44 Hastings L.J. 337 (1993)