A SCOTUS Lesson: Yates and the Construction of Materiality

A fish is no doubt an object that is tangible,” but a fish is not a “tangible object” for purposes of Section 1519 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

That’s the Supreme Court of the United States, in Yates v. United States, decided today.

What’s more, for copyright enthusiasts, “A tangible
object captured by §1519, we hold, must be one used to record or preserve information.” Not that copyright law itself had anything to do with this case. But limiting “objects” to “objects that record information” reminds me of copyright’s circular definitions of “copy” and “fixation.” A copy is an object in which a work is fixed; a work is fixed when it is embodied in a copy. Here, an object is something that records information. And something that records information (a “record”) is an object. Small wonder that four Justices decided that they wanted no part of this fishy business. But Justice Kagan’s dissent has to be right: You can hold a fish in your hand, and by any ordinary, sensible reading of the phrase “tangible object,” the fish counts. The Supreme Court can making something out of nothing, but can it really make nothing out of something?

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