Search Penny Hill Press

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Jurisprudence of Justice John Paul Stevens: Selected Opinions on Intellectual Property Law

Brian T. Yeh
Legislative Attorney

This report briefly surveys decisions of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens in intellectual property cases. An examination of Justice Stevens' written opinions relating to intellectual property law reveals a strong desire to ensure that the rights of intellectual property creators are balanced with the rights of the public to access creative and innovative works. No decision embodies this interest more than Justice Stevens' majority opinion in Sony Corporation of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., a landmark copyright case issued in 1984 that paved the way for the development and sale of popular consumer electronics, such as the video recorder (VCR, DVR, TiVo), portable music and video players (iPod), personal computers, and other devices that permit the recording and playback of copyrighted content. 

In addition, Justice Stevens issued a lengthy dissent in the 2003 case Eldred v. Ashcroft, in which he asserted that Congress lacked the power to pass a law that extended the term of existing copyrights by 20 years. Such a retroactive extension delays the entrance of copyrighted works into the public domain and, in Justice Stevens' opinion, is a violation of the Constitution's Copyright Clause that authorizes Congress to grant exclusive intellectual property rights to authors and artists for "limited Times." 

In the area of patent law, Justice Stevens authored the majority opinion in the 1978 case Parker v. Flook that sought to severely restrict the availability of patent protection on inventions relating to computer software programs. Yet just three years later, the Supreme Court's decision in Diamond v. Diehr effectively opened the door to the allowance of patents on some computer programs. Justice Stevens wrote a strongly worded dissent in Diehr in which he suggested that Congress would be better suited than the Court to address the policy considerations of allowing patent protection for computer programs. His written opinions in both of these cases reveal an interest in judicial restraint, not wanting to extend patent rights into areas that Congress had not contemplated. 

Justice Stevens dissented from the 1999 opinion, Florida Prepaid v. College Savings Bank, in which a majority of the Court invalidated Congress's attempt to abrogate state sovereign immunity and authorize patent holders to file suits for monetary damages against states and state instrumentalities that infringe their patent rights. Justice Stevens believed that the 1992 Patent and Plant Variety Protection Remedy Clarification Act was a proper exercise of Congress's authority under §5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to prevent state deprivations of property without due process of law, and he expressed his disagreement with the majority opinion's expansive protection of states' rights.

Date of Report: May 14, 2010
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: R41236
Price: $29.95

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail Penny Hill Press or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.