33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 591 (1834), United States Supreme Court
The case arose out of the printing of the Supreme Court's own opinions. Henry Wheaton, the third reporter of decisions, had compiled with great care the opinions of the Court, complete with annotations and summaries of the arguments in Court, useful material but which made the volumes of his reports costly and out of the reach of most lawyers. His successor as reporter, Richard Peters, in addition to publishing the current volumes of reports, had gone over his predecessor's work, eliminating the arguments and other extraneous material, and publishing an abridged edition in which he reduced twenty-four volumes into six. While the reporter did receive a $1,000 per year salary from the government, it did not cover the full expenses of preparing the reports and the reporters relied on the sale of the books to recoup their costs. By creating more affordable volumes, Peters devastated the market for Wheaton's more expensive books.
Wheaton sued in Pennsylvania and lost in the circuit court — Wheaton v. Peters, 29 Fed. Cases 862 (No. 17,486) (C.C.E.D. Pa. 1832). The judge, Joseph Hopkinson, ruled that copyright is purely the creation of statute and one must comply with the requirements of registering a copyright, putting a notice in the work covered, etc., in order to receive protection. Judge Hopkinson also ruled that there was no federal common law, one must look to the states and, even then, the states did not necessarily adopt the entire English common law — assuming there was a common law copyright.
Wheaton then appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
John McLean, who himself had publishing experience as the founder of an Ohio newspaper, wrote the opinion of the Court. In it, he declared that while the common law undoubtedly protected the right to one's unpublished writings — e.g. a diary, personal letters — "this is a very different right from that which asserts a perpetual and exclusive property in the future publication of the work, after the author shall have published it to the world." (33 U.S. 591 at 658) McLean declared there was no common law right: "Congress, then, by this act, instead of sanctioning an existing right, as contended, created it." (33 U.S. 591 at 660-61) McLean also rejected Wheaton's contention that requiring registration and the other conditions of the law were improper. Congress was giving Wheaton and other creators a special protection and it was not unreasonable to expect them to observe the formalities, the Court ruled.
This precedent corresponded to the English decision in Donaldson v. Beckett, which was cited in the Court's opinion.