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Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden introduces Justice Ginsburg at the 2019 National Book Festival. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

The Enduring Copyright Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Official Supreme Court portrait. Photo by Steve Petteway/ Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States.

“Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke those words in 2015 when asked what advice she would give young women today. It was not empty advice. Instead, it was a guiding principle she followed throughout her life and career.

When Justice Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020, she left a lasting and wide-ranging legacy, most notably in her lifelong fight for women’s rights and gender equality. Perhaps a lesser-known aspect of her influence is her impact on copyright law. She was an ardent supporter of the constitutional goal to promote the progress of science and encourage creativity through copyright. She authored majority opinions in key cases as well as influential concurrences and dissents. But Justice Ginsburg’s impact goes beyond the bench. Her fight for the things she cared about turned her into an unlikely pop culture icon that inspired creators. She was even a copyright owner, herself.

Throughout her twenty-seven years on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg heard many copyright matters and wrote several copyright-related majority opinions, concurrences, and dissents interpreting and influencing the law. Her opinions addressed a wide range of issues, including the constitutional limits on the length of copyright protection in Eldred v. Ashcroft, restoration of copyright protection to foreign works in the public domain in Golan v. Holder, infringement of freelance works in New York Times Company, Inc. v. Tasini, and copyright protection and useful articles in Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc., among many others.

Some of Justice Ginsburg’s opinions even touched on Copyright Office processes, including Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v., LLC (2019), in which the court ruled that one could not file an infringement suit until the Copyright Office registers, or refuses to register, a copyright claim. And during her years on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, she addressed the Copyright Office’s registration decision regarding the Breakout video game in Atari Games Corp. v. Oman in two opinions that the Office’s Review Board often cites.

Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist swears in Ginsburg as Associate Supreme Court Justice in 1993. Photo by Ralph Alswang/White House Photograph Office, Clinton Administration.

Justice Ginsburg’s fight for what she cared about, and doing so in a way that led others to join her, is perhaps the reason she became a pop culture icon over the last decade of her life. RBG, as her supporters affectionately named her, was even honored with a recurring impersonation on Saturday Night Live by cast member Kate McKinnon. She’s inspired creators in all mediums. A search of the internet shows endless merchandise in the form of dolls, coffee mugs, t-shirts, posters, jewelry, facemasks, bookmarks, and far more than possible to list.

Some creators have even registered their Ginsburg-inspired works with the Copyright Office. Works including an illustration inspired by RBG’s recognizable collar, a bobblehead sculpture, jewelry, playing cards, and more, join other artwork, many types of books, and music—all celebrating Justice Ginsburg and her legacy.

Some have created works for the stage. Composer and librettist Derrick Wang began writing an opera while a law student at the University of Maryland. Incorporating the Supreme Court opinions of Justices Antonin Scalia and Ginsburg, their friendship, and their love for opera, Scalia/Ginsburg had its world premiere in 2015. That same year, the Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts published an early version of the libretto that also included forewords from both justices. In her foreword, Justice Ginsburg praised the comedic opera as “a dream come true.”

Justice Ginsburg has also been the subject of several films. Award-winning filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West directed and produced the documentary film RBG, which premiered in 2018 and focused on her life, career, and pop culture status. Cohen and West spent several years preparing for the film, spending time with Justice Ginsburg, and conducting interviews. That same year, the biographical drama On the Basis of Sex, written by Justice Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, also premiered. Justice Ginsburg helped edit the script to ensure accuracy and even made a cameo in the film.

In addition to shaping copyright law and inspiring creators, Justice Ginsburg was also a copyright owner. She’s authored several forewords, including for the 2018 book The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong and You Can Too, written by her trainer, Bryant Johnson. Before becoming a Supreme Court justice, she coauthored several law texts, including 1965’s Civil Procedure in Sweden, 1970’s Selective Survey of English Language Studies on Scandinavian Law, and 1973’s Sex-Based Discrimination: Text, Cases and Materials.

In 2016, she teamed up with her authorized biographers and Georgetown Law professors Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams for My Own Wordsher first book since becoming a justice. My Own Words is a collection of Justice Ginsburg’s speeches and writings on a wide range of topics dating back to eighth grade, which Justice Ginsburg selected with her biographers. Justice Ginsburg also wrote the introduction, while Hartnett and Williams provided context to her writings based on hundreds of interviews. It’s just a glimpse into her fight for the things she cared about.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden introduces Justice Ginsburg at the 2019 National Book Festival. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

To celebrate Justice Ginsburg’s impact on copyright, join the Copyright Office on February 17 from 1:00 to 2:30 p.m. eastern time for “Copyright Office Presents: The Enduring Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” This virtual event will feature a conversation between Paul Goldstein of Stanford Law School and Jane Ginsburg of Columbia Law School on Justice Ginsburg’s jurisprudence. Cohen, West, and Wang will also discuss how Justice Ginsburg inspired their own copyright-protected works. While the advanced registration to attend the Zoom event has closed, the Copyright Office will also live stream the event on its YouTube Channel. No registration is required to view the live stream. If you miss the event, the video will later be available on the Office’s YouTube Channel.


Comments (6)

  1. She did some great things in her life but her ruling on copyright registration is a set some states in a copyright infringement case you only have to submit a application for copyright and pay the fees and a court of law would except the application as proof of copyright. Because sometimes a certificate from the copyright office takes so long to get the statue of limitations has passed to file a infringement case

  2. This is an amazing article. Well written and such a true and amazing part of our history. Job well done!!

  3. Much that We never were aware of and should be publicised during her Legal activities during her lifetime of Service and career at Supreme Court…

  4. I know RBG insisted the U.S. Government should not adopt the international exhaustion of Intellectual Property for preserving the U.S. economy and international trades in Kirstsaeng case and Lexmark case !

  5. Thank you so much I love you

  6. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is more than an icon, she is an inspiration to young girls all over the world. My grandchild who is seventeen will grow up in a world Justice Ginsburg affected only for the better especially in her championing of gay rights. Live long and prosper in your legacy, Justice Ginsburg!

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