Copyright claims jurisdiction in Colorado state courts – Long v. Cordain

In a recent decision the Colorado Court of Appeals decided that a complaint containing copyright related claims was not preempted by the federal Copyright Act and that Colorado State Courts had jurisdiction over such claims.

“Long’s complaint advanced four state-law causes of action: breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duties, civil theft, and a request for an accounting. The district court determined that these claims were “primarily for damages based upon royalties or potential royalties attributable to the copyrights allegedly included in the License.” Long v. Cordain. Therefore, the [trial] court concluded, the complaint arose under federal copyright law and was within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal courts. This was error . . .” concluded the Colorado Court of Appeals on December 31, 2014 in 2014 COA 177.

The United States Copyright Act gives exclusive jurisdiction of lawsuits concerning copyrights to the Federal Courts. However, not every case concerning copyrights is an action under the Copyright Act. Long’s complaint was based on an agreement between Long and Cordain forming an LLC to develop the business relating to the so-called “Paleo Diet” based on Cordain’s prior writings and research, except for works specifically excluded in the agreement.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals defined the circumstances in which Colorado state courts have jurisdictions of actions relating to copyrights as actions in which a claim required proof of acts different from those required to establish a copyright infringement action, such a claim containing an extra element that distinguishes it from a claim arising under copyright law. It is this “extra element” of the claim which arises under state law (breach of contract) which gives Colorado courts the power to hear the case.

Courts have consistently held that a license granting the right to use copyright-protected works is a contract governed by state law. Long’s claims neither sought a remedy expressly granted by the Copyright Act nor required an interpretation of the Copyright Act.

Long’s complaint sought damages for breach of fiduciary duty, civil theft, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and for an accounting. The District Court had dismissed the entirety of Long’s complaint based on its purported lack of jurisdiction because of the preemption of the Copyright Act. The Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal in its entirety and remanded the case to the District Court.

The opinion quoted above is not final since it may be modified by a later appeal or reconsideration. Nevertheless it is likely to stand in its present form and as such is a blazingly clear rule of the kinds of cases related to copyright which may be entertained in Colorado State Courts.

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