Hastings Law Journal


Amy B. Cohen


Congress has long provided the federal courts with exclusive original jurisdiction over cases "arising under" the federal copyright laws. When a dispute arises between parties to a copyright license or assignment agreement, however, it is rarely clear whether the case fits within this exclusively federal jurisdiction. The lower federal courts, drawing on a long line of Supreme Court decisions in the closely related areas of federal question jurisdiction and patent jurisdiction, have developed two tests for the existence of copyright jurisdiction in this context. Unfortunately, neither test bears any substantial relation to the policies underlying the copyright jurisdiction statute and federal copyright law in general, and each is inconsistent with the other in application. As a result, courts and litigants in copyright cases continually wrangle over jurisdictional questions and an important boundary between the spheres of federal and state judicial authority remains ill-defined.

In this Article, Professor Cohen proposes a coherent, pragmatic framework for determinations of copyright jurisdiction. Based on the best of the various judicial and scholarly approaches to federal jurisdiction, she argues that the existence of copyright jurisdiction over any given case should turn on the extent to which the dispute implicates federal copyright concerns, balanced against the extent to which it affects state interests regarding contract law. To promote the basic goals of copyright law and copyright jurisdiction, cases presenting copyright issues of national significance should be decided by federal courts. The structure of our federal system, however, demands that cases in which questions of state law predominate be heard in a state court. Professor Cohen explains how these competing interests play out in different types of common copyright jurisdiction disputes, and offers a resolution for each. This framework, she concludes, provides a sensible method for resolving controversies over copyright jurisdiction consistently and in conformity with the fundamental principles at stake in each.

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