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Federal Circuit Rejects Prisoner’s Claim of Copyright Infringement

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a federal prisoner’s copyright infringement suit filed against Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (FPI, also known as UNICOR), the prison sweatshop arm of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

While working at the FPI factory at USP Leavenworth in Kansas, federal prisoner Robert James Walton created a series of calendars that were later produced and sold by FPI and distributed by the General Services Administration.

Walton copyrighted the calendars and brought suit against the United States for copyright infringement. The Court of Federal Claims dismissed his lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction, finding that Walton’s complaint was barred by 28 U.S.C. § 1498(b), which precludes claims of copyright infringement against the United States if the copyrighted work was created while in the “employment or service” of the federal government. The court reasoned that the calendars were created during Walton’s “employment or service” to the United States while he worked for FPI.

Walton appealed and the Federal Circuit affirmed. Passing on the question of whether he was an “employee” of FPI within the meaning of § 1498, the appellate court held that Walton’s lawsuit was barred because the calendars were created “while in the service of the United States.” Walton designed the calendars at the “direction of and with computers provided by the United States, and was supervised by United States employees in that work,” the circuit court wrote. Thus, he could not raise a copyright infringement claim. See: Walton v. United States, 551 F.3d 1367 (Fed. Cir. 2009).

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