CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT.
Warren, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Whittaker, Stewart
These two cases arose under the Declaratory Judgment Act of June 14, 1934, 48 Stat. 955, as amended, now 28 U. S. C. (1958 ed.) §§ 2201 and 2202. The plaintiff, an educational publishing corporation, asked defendant, Vice Admiral Rickover, for leave to publish, to an undefined extent, uncopyrighted speeches he had theretofore delivered. He refused on the ground that what he claimed to be exclusive publishing rights had been sold
to another publisher, and he gave notice of copyright on speeches subsequent to the plaintiff's demand. Since the defendant threatened restraint of plaintiff's use of his speeches, the plaintiff sought this declaratory relief. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the merits, 177 F.Supp. 601. The Court of Appeals (one judge dissenting), agreeing with the District Court that the defendant had, as to his uncopyrighted speeches, the common-law rights of an author, held that he had forfeited his rights by reason of their "publication"; as to his copyrighted speeches, that court remanded the case to the District Court for determination of the extent to which "fair use" was open to the plaintiff. 109 U. S. App. D.C. 128, 284 F.2d 262. By petition for certiorari and cross-petition both parties sought review and because serious public questions were in issue we brought the cases here. 365 U.S. 841.
The Declaratory Judgment Act was an authorization, not a command. It gave the federal courts competence to make a declaration of rights; it did not impose a duty to do so. Brillhart v. Excess Ins. Co., 316 U.S. 491, 494, 499; Great Lakes Co. v. Huffman, 319 U.S. 293, 299-300; Federation of Labor v. McAdory, 325 U.S. 450, 462; Mechling Barge Lines v. United States, 368 U.S. 324, 331. Of course a District Court cannot decline to entertain such an action as a matter of whim or personal disinclination. "A declaratory judgment, like other forms of equitable relief, should be granted only as a matter of judicial discretion, exercised in the public interest." Eccles v. Peoples Bank, 333 U.S. 426, 431. We have cautioned against declaratory judgments on issues of public moment, even falling short of constitutionality, in speculative situations. Eccles v. Peoples Bank, supra, at 432.
In these cases we are asked to determine matters of serious public concern. They relate to claims to intellectual
property arising out of public employment. They thus raise questions touching the responsibilities and immunities of those engaged in the public service, particularly high officers, and the rightful demands of the Government and the public upon those serving it. These are delicate problems; their solution is bound to have far-reaching import. Adjudication of such problems, certainly by way of resort to a discretionary declaratory judgment, should rest on an adequate and full-bodied record. The record before us is woefully lacking in these requirements.
The decisions of the courts below rested on an Agreed Statement of Facts which sketchily summarized the circumstances of the preparation and of the delivery of the speeches in controversy in relation to the Vice Admiral's official duties. The nature and scope of his duties were not clearly defined and less than an adequate exposition of the use by him of government facilities and government personnel in the preparation of these speeches was given. Administrative practice, insofar as it may relevantly shed light, was not explored. The Agreed Statement of Facts was in part phrased, modified and interpreted in the course of a running exchange between trial judge and counsel. The extent of the agreement of counsel to the Agreed Statement of Facts was in part explained in the course of oral argument in the District Court. None of the undetailed and loose, if not ambiguous, statements in the Agreed Statement of Facts was subject to the safeguards of critical probing through examination and cross-examination. This is all the more disturbing where vital public interests are implicated in a requested declaration and the Government asserted no claim (indeed obliquely may be deemed not to have disapproved of the defendant's claim) although the Government was invited to appear in the litigation as amicus curiae and chose not
to do so. So fragile a record is an unsatisfactory basis on which to entertain this action for declaratory relief.
Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, with direction to return the case to the District Court for disposition ...