Intellectual Property

Prisoner’s Right to Copyright Protection Not Impeded by Restriction against Prisoner’s Business Activity: Jerry v. Beard, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 5861 (3d Cir. 3/22/11)

Prisoners have a legal right to register their copyrights with the Library of Congress, according to a recent decision from the Third Circuit.

Bernard Carter Jerry-El (Jerry), a prisoner in Pennsylvania, intended to submit his book to the Library of Congress to obtain copyright privileges. However, the prison librarian confiscated the book materials, believing Jerry was attempting to improperly use the copyright process.

In dismissing Jerry's 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 claim, the district court reasoned that the sole function of a copyright was to enable an author to commercially exploit his creations. Thus, in the district court's view, Jerry's attempt to register his story amounted to an attempt to engage in business activities, which a prisoner has no right to do.

However, in Jerry v. Beard, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 5861 (3d Cir. Pa. Mar. 22, 2011) [enhanced version available to subscribers / unenhanced version available from lexisONE Free Case Law], the Third Circuit reversed. Though the prisoner had no right under the Constitution or federal law to engage in business, such being a function of copyrights, the Third Circuit deemed the district court's analysis too narrow. The Third Circuit held:

The Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101, et seq., affords the author of a literary work limited exclusive control over that work, including the right to prevent others from commercially exploiting the work. This right vests the moment the author commits the story to paper. Under § 407 of the Act, a copyright holder may register his work with the Library of Congress to obtain additional protections against infringement. It does not appear that exercising this right necessarily constitutes engaging in a business activity. Taking as true Jerry's assertion that his story was never returned - and perhaps was destroyed - he may be able to assert a claim under the Copyright Act against the DOC for interfering with his ability to protect his copyright through registration with the Library of Congress.

(citations and footnotes omitted)

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