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Intellectual Property

University of Arizona Immune to Counterclaims in Ansel Adams Trademark Case

Last week, the 9th Circuit found the University of Arizona immune to counterclaims filed by trademark defendants accused of wrongfully selling prints called "Ansel Adams Lost Negatives." Ansel Adams Publ Rights Trust v. PRS Media Partners, LLC, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 25896 (9th Cir. Cal. Dec. 19, 2012) [enhanced version available to subscribers].

The University, as a non-jural entity under Arizona law, could not be sued in its own name. Instead, the Arizona Board of Regents, as the governing body for Arizona's public universities, was the proper defendant. Pursuant to Rutledge v. Arizona Board of Regents, 660 F.2d 1345 (9th Cir. 1981) [enhanced version available to subscribers] and Ronwin v. Shapiro, 657 F.2d 1071 (9th Cir. 1981) [enhanced version available to subscribers], the Board was entitled to immunity.

Plaintiffs sued after defendants created prints using glass negatives allegedly created by Ansel Adams. The University was included in the suit as administrator of the Center for Creative Photography, which houses the Ansel Adams archives.

Defendants asserted several counterclaims against the University, including unfair competition, civil conspiracy to interfere with prospective economic advantage, and aiding and abetting tortious interference with prospective economic advantage. In response, the University claimed sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.

Pointing to the Center's external revenue sources, defendants argued that any Eleventh Amendment immunity was negated because a judgment against the University would be paid by the Center and not out of the State of Arizona's treasury. However, defendants failed to name the Center as a defendant. Without addressing the issue, the 9th Circuit held that a judgment against the University would amount to a legal liability incurred by the State, which the Supreme Court had held to be the most important factor in whether an agency is entitled to sovereign immunity.

Moreover, defendants conceded in their counterclaim that the Center was "a division of the University of Arizona Libraries" and "a public institution [that] exists to serve the public interest, not any single vested interest." Thus, a suit against the Center amounted to a suit against the Board, which was immune. 


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