Copyright infringement does not qualify as a constitutional taking says Texas Supreme Court

Jim Olive Photograph, D/B/A Photolive, Ince v University of Houston System, 19-0605 (Tex. June 18, 2021)

The Texas Supreme Court held that a governmental entity’s infringement on a copyright does not qualify as a taking under the federal or state constitution.

Jim Olive Photography d/b/a Photolive, Inc. (Olive) is a professional photographer who took a series of aerial photographs of the City of Houston in 2005 and displayed them on his website for purchase. Such photos were registered with the United States Copyright Office.  Olive asserts the University of Houston (“University”) downloaded a copy and removed all identifying copyright and attribution material and began displaying the photographic image on several web pages.  Olive sued the University for a taking without compensation. The University filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. The University appealed. The court of appeals disagreed and dismissed Olive’s claims. Olive appealed.

A copyright is a form of intellectual property that subsists in works of authorship that are original and are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. For a term consisting of the author’s life plus seventy years, the owner of a copyright enjoys the five exclusive rights of reproduction, adaptation, distribution, and public performance and display. The Court assumed, without deciding, that a copyright is a protected property interest. However, a compensable taking does not arise whenever state action adversely affects private property interests. Governments interfere with private property rights every day. Some of those intrusions are compensable; most are not. “A taking is the acquisition, damage, or destruction of property via physical or regulatory means.” To determine whether a physical or regulatory interference with property constitutes a taking, a court ordinarily undertakes a “situation-specific factual inquiry.” Property is the bundle of rights that describe one’s relationship to a thing and not the thing itself. Infringement of a copyright, however, is different than a typical appropriation of tangible property where rights are more closely bound to the physical thing. An act of copyright infringement by the government does not take possession or control of, or occupy, the copyright. The government’s violation of the copyright owner’s rights does not destroy the right or property. The Copyright Act provides that no action by a governmental body to seize or appropriate such ownership shall be given any effect under the Act. Similarly, the government’s unauthorized use of a copy of the copyrighted work is not an “actual taking of possession and control” of the copyright. Copyright infringement not only lacks the key features of a per se taking; it also does not implicate the reasons for creating a per se rule in the first place. Although the Texas Constitution waives governmental immunity with respect to inverse condemnation claims, such a claim must still be “predicated on a viable allegation of taking.” Allegations of copyright infringement assert a violation of the owner’s copyright, but not its confiscation, and therefore factual allegations of an infringement do not alone allege a taking. The plea should have been granted.

The concurring opinion focused more on the need to be flexible with a broad range of harm to property. However, the concurring justices agreed that copyright infringement was too far outside the protection.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. JUSTICE DEVINE delivered the opinion of the Court. JUSTICE BUSBY filed a concurring opinion (found here) in which JUSTICE LEHRMANN joined and in which JUSTICE BLACKLOCK joined as to part II.