Early last week, the Newark (Delaware) City Council postponed a vote on proposed amendments to Newark’s building codes that would require new construction to earn 25 points under either LEED 2009 for New Construction or LEED 2008 for Homes. In addition to the typical green building regulatory concerns relating to costs and red tape which were raised by local designers, builders, and developers, one architect who participated at the City Council session suggested that – as drafted – the ordinance might violate the copyrights which USGBC holds in its various LEED systems. According to the Newark Post, the city’s staff has contacted USGBC and is investigating the issue, and expects resolution at another council meeting shortly.
The first question I asked myself when I saw this story is whether a state or local government enjoys immunity from suits for copyright infringement, which must be brought in federal court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1498. (Of course, whether USGBC would choose to assert a claim against a government which has allegedly infringed one of its copyrights is a totally different question). Although local governments (towns, cities, counties, etc.) are not immune from suits brought under federal law, the answer is not straightforward with respect to state immunity. (The federal government, on the other hand, has expressly waived its immunity from claims for copyright infringement, though the only available remedy is money damages and not injunctive relief.)
Section 511 of the Copyright Act was adopted by Congress in 1991 in the aftermath of BV Engineering v. University of California at Los Angeles, where UCLA successfully defended a copyright infringement claim on the basis that it enjoyed sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. 858 F.2d 1394 (9th Cir. 1988). Section 511 states clearly that “[a]ny State . . . shall not be immune, under the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, from suit in Federal court . . . for a violation of any of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner.” 17 U.S.C. § 511. (Just a reminder that the Eleventh Amendment immunizes states from suits for money damages or equitable relief without their consent).
Despite this seemingly clear statutory provision, two Supreme Court cases from the late 1990s suggest that Section 511 might not allow a copyright infringement claim to proceed against a state government. In Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, 119 S.Ct. 2219 (1999) (patent) and College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, 119 S.Ct. 2199 (1999) (trademark), the Court rejected patent and trademark infringement claims against the state of Florida that were purportedly authorized by similar provisions in the patent and trademark statutes (35 U.S.C. § 271(h) and 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)(2), respectively). Justice Stevens suggested in a footnote in the patent decision that Section 511 might nevertheless receive different treatment, but some brief follow up research did not identify any subsequent cases in this line which confronted the Copyright Act. It is also worth noting that the Court’s holding in both cases was grounded in Congress’s inability to enact statutes that effectively circumvent constitutional protections.
Regardless of where the law currently stands on the interplay between sovereign immunity and Section 511 of the Copyright Act, it’s unclear here exactly how Newark’s proposed amendments could violate USGBC’s copyrights because the text of the proposed amendments does not incorporate any language from the rating systems directly. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting and important consideration for state and local governments that do, in fact, pull relevant sections from third-party rating systems directly into proposed legislation, and a good reminder that a broad range of legal issues exist for policymakers to analyze as they consider and ultimately craft legislation.