In one of the first decisions of 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a ruling of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that a federal prisoner could not sue the U.S. government for copyright infringement. In doing so, the Federal Circuit held that 28 U.S.C. § 1498(b), the statute governing copyright infringement suits against the federal government, does not permit such suits by prisoners in the “employment or service” of the U.S. government. Walton v. United States, No. 2008-5057 (Fed. Cir., Jan. 8, 2009) (Friedman, J.).

While an inmate at Leavenworth prison, Robert James Walton worked for Federal Prison Industries, Inc., a government-owned company, designing and producing desk-blotter calendars. In 2001, Walton, acting pro se, filed a copyright infringement suit against the federal government. The suit was initiated at the district court level, but was subsequently transferred to the Court of Federal Claims. The government moved to dismiss the suit on the basis that Walton could not maintain the suit without a copyright registration. After registering his copyright and securing counsel, Walton filed an amended complaint. Subsequently the Court of Federal Claims dismissed Walton’s complaint for lack of jurisdiction, holding that § 1498(b) does not authorize such suits. Walton appealed.

Section 1498(b) provides that a “copyright infringement suit cannot be maintained against the United States, if the copyrighted work was prepared (1) while in the ‘employment or service’ of the United States and (2)(a) as part of the official functions of the employee or (b) in whose preparation government ‘time, material[s], or facilities’ were used.” Because it was undisputed that Walton used “government time, material[s], or facilities” in preparing his calendar, the critical issue before the Court was whether Walton’s calendar was prepared while he was in the “employment or service” of the federal government.

On appeal, Walton argued that the statutory bar does not apply since it is well-settled that prisoners are not “employees” of the United States. Walton further argued that the terms “employment” and “service” are synonymous and thus, if Walton’s calendar was not prepared while in the “employment” of the federal government, it was also not prepared while in the “service” of the United States. The Federal Circuit disagreed. Relying upon the basic tenets of statutory construction, the Court concluded that Congress intended the two terms to have “different, although related, meanings.” Though the Court declined to define the precise limits of the statutory term “service,” it nevertheless found that Walton’s relationship with the federal government constituted a service relationship. Because §1498(b) does not confer a right of action on copyright owners like Walton who use the federal government’s time, material or facilities to prepare a copyrighted work, the Federal Circuit concluded that the Court of Federal Claims correctly dismissed the complaint for lack of jurisdiction.