Dowling v. United States (1985)
(The Bootleg Records Case)
In this criminal case that reached the United States Supreme Court, the Defendant, Dowling, was convicted in the U.S. District Court for mail fraud (United States v. Dowling, 1984), interstate transportation of stolen property, and conspiracy to transport stolen property interstate as a result of the sale and distribution of large quantities of bootleg recordings of Elvis Presley. The Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed, and the U.S. Supreme Court then heard the case on petition for writ of certiorari.
One issue faced the Supreme Court, whether the interstate transportation of bootleg recordings, in infringement of copyright, violated the National Stolen Property Act (18 U.S.C. 2314).
A majority of the Court held (with opinion by Justice Blackmun, dissent by Powell, joined by Burger and White) that infringement of copyright did not amount to "theft, conversion, or fraud."
Note: In this case, a brief was filed on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America, Inc., as amicus curiae urging affirmance of the conviction.
Supreme Court of the United States
Paul Edmond DOWLING, Petitioner
473 U.S. 207, 105 S.Ct. 3127
Argued April 17, 1985.
Decided June 28, 1985.
Justice Powell dissented and filed opinion, in which Chief Justice Burger and Justice White joined.
FN* The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337, 26 S.Ct. 282, 287, 50 L.Ed. 499.
Title 18 U.S.C. § 2314 provides criminal penalties for any person who "transports in interstate or foreign commerce any goods, wares, merchandise, securities or money, of the value of $5,000 or more, knowing the same to have been stolen, converted or taken by fraud." Petitioner was convicted in Federal District Court of violating, inter alia, § 2314, arising from the interstate transportation of "bootleg" phonorecords that were manufactured and distributed without the consent of the copyright owners of the musical compositions performed on the records. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Held: Section 2314 does not reach petitioner's conduct. Pp. 3131-3139.
(a) The language of § 2314 does not "plainly and unmistakably" cover such conduct. The phonorecords in question were not "stolen, converted or taken by fraud" for purposes of § 2314. The section's language clearly contemplates a physical identity between the items unlawfully obtained and those eventually transported, and hence some prior physical taking of the subject goods. Since the statutorily defined property rights of a copyright holder have a character distinct from the possessory interest of the owner of simple "goods, wares, [or] merchandise," interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud. The infringer of a copyright does not assume physical control over the copyright nor wholly deprive its owner of its use. Infringement implicates a more complex set of property interests than does run- of-the-mill theft, conversion, or fraud. Pp. 3132-3134.
(b) The purpose of § 2314 to fill with federal action an enforcement gap created by limited state jurisdiction over interstate transportation of stolen property does not apply to petitioner's conduct. No such need for supplemental federal action has ever existed with respect to copyright infringement, since Congress has the power under the Constitution to legislate directly in this area. Pp. 3134-3135.
(c) The history of the criminal infringement provisions of the Copyright Act indicates that Congress had no intention to reach copyright infringement when it enacted § 2314. Pp. 3135-3138.
(d) To apply § 2314 to petitioner's conduct would support its extension to significant areas, such as interstate transportation of patent-infringing goods, that Congress has evidenced no intention to enter by way of criminal sanction. Pp. 3138-3139.
739 F.2d 1445 (9 CA 1984), reversed.
Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.
The National Stolen Property Act provides for the imposition of criminal penalties upon any person who "transports in interstate or foreign commerce any goods, wares, merchandise, securities or money, of the value of $5,000 or more, knowing the same to have been stolen, converted or taken by fraud." 18 U.S.C. § 2314. In this case, we must determine whether the statute reaches the interstate transportation of "bootleg" phonorecords, "stolen, converted or taken by fraud" only in the sense that they were manufactured and distributed without the consent of the copyright owners of the musical compositions performed on the records.
After a bench trial in the United States District Court for the Central District of California conducted largely on the basis of a stipulated record, petitioner Paul Edmond Dowling was convicted of one count of conspiracy to transport stolen property in interstate commerce, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371; eight counts of interstate transportation of stolen property, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2314; nine counts of copyright infringement, in violation of 17 U.S.C. § 506(a); and three counts of mail fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341. [FN1] The offenses stemmed from an extensive bootleg record operation involving the manufacture and distribution by mail of recordings of vocal performances by Elvis Presley. [FN2] The evidence demonstrated that sometime around 1976, Dowling, to that time an avid collector of Presley recordings, began in conjunction with codefendant William Samuel Theaker to manufacture phonorecords of unreleased Presley recordings. They used material from a variety of sources, including studio outtakes, acetates, soundtracks from Presley motion pictures, and tapes of Presley concerts and television appearances. [FN3] Until early 1980, Dowling and Theaker had the records manufactured at a record-pressing company in Burbank, Cal. When that company later refused to take their orders, they sought out other record-pressing companies in Los Angeles and, through codefendant Richard Minor, in Miami, Fla. The bootleg entrepreneurs never obtained authorization from or paid royalties to the owners of the copyrights in the musical compositions. [FN4]
FN1. Only the § 2314 counts concern us here. Counts Two through Seven of the indictment, referring to the statute, charged: