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Copyright Class 10 Infringement Part III

In the previous two classes (Infringement Part I and II), we’ve been looking at the heart of the typical infringement analysis. Today, we’ll be looking at one special limitation to infringement of the reproduction right and at infringement of the other rights besides the exclusive right of reproduction.

Infringement of the reproduction right of copyright in sound recordings

In order to fully understand, the limitation of the reproduction right in the copyright of sound recordings, we need to understand how copyright applies to music. It’s easiest just to think  of music as having two separate copyrights. There is one copyright in the musical composition, typically subsisting in the writer of the work, and another copyright in each particular sound recording, typically subsisting in the producer. The musical composition is what we think of as the musical work, the song itself.  The sound recording is a particular recording.

So any particular song you hear on the radio is subject to two copyrights.

Copyrights in sound recordings are very limited. They are only infringed by ‘mechanical’ reproduction. Basically, you have to use a machine to copy it. Put another way, if you hired a group of musicians to imitate, exactly, a sound recording, it would not be an infringement of the copyright in the sound recording (although it would obviously infringe the copyright in the musical composition).

The most interesting recent issue relating to sound recordings is whether digital sampling infringes the original work. See Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films.

Other rights provided by copyright

Thus far in our examination of infringement, we’ve been talking about the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, in other words, the right to prevent others from copying the work. That is the most commonly asserted right, and the right most people associate with copyright. Hey, it’s right in the name.

But it is not the only right an owner of copyright gets – Section 106 of the Copyright Act provides six different rights:

Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;

(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;

(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;

(5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and

(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Let’s look at each briefly.

Exclusive right to prepare derivative works

Section 101 defines “derivative work.”

A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.

The most important examples for fiction writers would be the conversion of a book into a movie, the translation of a book, the preparation of an audiobook version of the book, and in some cases the writing of a sequel (…and the preparation of an abridgment if we harken back to the golden days of Reader’s Digest).

Where you are most likely to see something that looks like this right is in the grant of rights clause in a book contract. However, that grant of rights actually includes both this right to prepare derivative works and the broader right to make reproductions of the work. Those provisions in the granting clause transfer the exclusive right, for example, to make a movie version of the book. In order to do so, that clause has to mean both the reproduction right and the derivative right.

The reason for this is the same reason why you rarely see the derivative right asserted by itself. The derivative right is most often asserted as an additional claim added on to a claim of infringement of the reproduction right. Thinking about the scope of the reproduction right is the key to understanding why. If you think back to our examination of the infringement analysis, it becomes immediately obvious that one can infringe the reproduction right without making an exact verbatim copy. A non-literal copy is still a violation of the reproduction right. One extension of that is that changing the medium of the work can still be a copy. Thus a photograph can be a copy of a sculpture and a movie can be a copy of a book. That means that most derivative works are also copies.

Factual circumstances that create potential infringements of the derivative right without infringing the reproduction rights are rare. One example is when an individual alters an authorized copy enough to create a derivative work. So if you bought a coffee table book, cut out the images, and then mounted them on tiles – you might have altered them enough to meet the statutory definition of a derivative work. See Mirage Editions v. Albuquerque A.R.T. Co. and Lee v. A.R.T. Co. A second example is when hardware or software is used to alter an existing program as it runs. See Lewis Galoob Toys v. Nintendo of America (anybody remember the Game Genie?) and Micro Star v. Formgen (involving Duke Nukem 3D levels)

Exclusive right to distribute the work

This right exists to close a “loophole” in the reproduction right. If one individual makes thousands of copies of DVD and then sells them to a second individual who then offers them for sale to the public, the second individual technically has not made any copies. The distribution right allows the copyright holder to go after the second individual directly. That individual may be the only one the owner can easily find.

The real story of this right is really its most important limitation.

Think about the scope of this right – distribution “by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending”.

Have you ever given a book to someone as a gift?Have you ever leant someone a book? The first is a transfer of ownership and the second is a lending – in other words if we look no further than section 106, each of those activities appears to be an infringement of copyright!

But of course, it’s not. This is where the First Sale Doctrine, codified in Section 109, does its work:

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106(3), the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord.

This exhaustion of the distribution right only occurs once the copyright holder has first parted with ownership of that particular copy. If ownership is not transferred by the owner, if instead the particular copy is only licensed to the recipient, the First Sale doctrine does not kick in. In the literary world, most publishers and retailers purport to license eBooks to readers rather than sell them. If that is the case, then the purchaser (?) cannot resale or even gift it. We’ve looked at this issue a few other places.

Exclusive right to display the work publicly

Section 101 provides:

To “display” a work means to show a copy of it, either directly or by means of a film, slide, television image, or any other device or process or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show individual images nonsequentially.

Further:

To perform or display a work “publicly” means—

(1) to perform or display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered; or

(2) to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work to a place specified by clause (1) or to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.

Like the distribution right, the public display right has a broad limitation. Section 109(c) provides that the owner of a particular copy can display that copy without infringing this right. So a museum that owns the a painting (the physical object) can display it without violating the display right. Where you sometimes see this right litigated is in works that are shown in the background of movies and TV shows.

Exclusive right to perform the work publicly

Section 101 defines “perform”:

To “perform” a work means to recite, render, play, dance, or act it, either directly or by means of any device or process or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show its images in any sequence or to make the sounds accompanying it audible.

Like the display right, this right is limited to certain types of works.

Exclusive right to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission

This right is specifically limited copyright in sound recordings. Section 101 provides a robust definition: “A “digital transmission” is a transmission in whole or in part in a digital or other non-analog format.” This was initially enacted because of a fear of a ‘celestial jukebox’ streaming music to devices, but it also applies to many internet music streaming services.

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Copyright Class 9 – Infringement, Part II

This week we look at the second half of the infringement analysis. Well, it’s half if you consider it as one of two elements. However, if we look at how much work or effort you have to put into this, it’s much more than half.

As a brief review, last week’s class set forth the two elements a plaintiff had to prove (beyond owning a valid copyright): 1) copying and 2) improper appropriation. Copying basically means that the defendant actually copied form the plaintiff’s protected work in stead of, say, coming up with the similar work completely independently or copying from a third work from which the plaintiff also copied.

Improper appropriation asks whether what the defendant copied was substantially similar to that part of the plaintiff’s work protected by copyright. Is the allegedly infringing work substantially similar to the copyright protected elements of the plaintiff’s work?

Improper Appropriation – It’s Confusing

Exactly how a court applies or even states this test can vary a great deal depending on what court it is, what medium the works are in, and what the parties argue before the court. It can get pretty murky if you sit down and try to figure out exactly what the test is. Additionally, the actual application of the test is far from a bright line. So when a lawyer equivocates on whether you “can do something” or not without running a foul of copyright, this is one of the main reasons. (Of course, the lack of any bright line rules in Fair Use is the other main reason.)

Peter Pan Fabric's print

Peter Pan Fabric’s print

The famous Judge Learned Hand explained why the test is so hard to nail down in Peter Pan Fabrics v. Martin Weiner Corp, a case involving similar designs printed on fabric:

The test for infringement of a copyright is of necessity vague. In the case of verbal “works” it is well settled that although the “proprietor‘s monopoly extends beyond an exact reproduction of the words, there can be no copyright in the “ideas” disclosed but only in their “expression.” Obviously, no principle can be stated as to when an imitator has gone beyond copying the “idea,” and has borrowed its “expression.” Decisions must therefore inevitably be ad hoc. In the case of designs, which are addressed to the aesthetic sensibilities of an observer, the test is, if possible, even more intangible. No one disputes that the copyright extends beyond a photographic reproduction of the design, but one cannot say how far an imitator must depart from an undeviating reproduction to escape infringement.

Martin Weiner Corp's print

Martin Weiner Corp’s print

Essentially, copyright infringement would be a lot clearer if we said only exact reproductions were infringing. That would make it much easier to predict the outcomes of cases. But we wouldn’t think it was particularly fair if someone could just make a few minor changes and get away with copying the rest? And that wouldn’t really effectuate the goal of providing economic incentives to creators. So, copyright says that a n infringing work does not have to be an exact copy – it only has to be substantially similar. That’s one source of murkiness in the test.

On the other side, we also say that copyright cannot protect ideas; instead, it only protects expressions. So someone can copy ideas without being infringing. But the line between what is an idea and what is expression is itself nearly impossible to nail down.

These two facets, Judge Hand was saying, create the vagueness and uncertainty that surround the infringement test. Take for example two cases that take two completely different approaches: Roth Greeting Cards v. United Card and Satava v. Lowry.

Roth involved two greeting card makers. Roth claimed that United had copied a number of its cards. The short statements on the front and inside of the cards were virtually the same, as was their general placement. The art work was different (generally a cartoonish character under the words on the front of the card). In addressing the improper appropriation element, the court did not try to make a detailed determination of what was protected as expression and what was idea. Note that the words themselves were just phrases or sentences that were too short by themselves to receive copyright protection. It was the selection and arrangement that yielded the originality sufficient for copyright protection.

It appears to us that in total concept and feel the cards of United are the same as the copyrighted cards of Roth. With the possible exception of one United card (exhibit 6), the characters depicted in the art work, the mood they portrayed, the combination of art work conveying a particular mood with a particular message, and the arrangement of the words on the greeting card are substantially the same as in Roth‘s cards. In several instances the lettering is also very similar.

It is true, as the trial court found, that each of United‘s cards employed art work somewhat different from that used in the corresponding Roth cards. However, “The test of infringement is whether the work is recognizable by an ordinary observer as having been taken from the copyrighted source.”

The remarkable similarity between the Roth and United cards in issue (with the possible exception of exhibits 5 and 6) is apparent to even a casual observer. For example, one Roth card (exhibit 9) has, on its front, a colored drawing of a cute moppet suppressing a smile and, on the in- side, the words “i wuv you.” With the exception of minor variations in color and style, defendant‘s card (exhibit 10) is identical. Likewise, Roth‘s card entitled “I miss you already,” depicts a forlorn boy sitting on a curb weeping, with an inside message reading “… and You Haven‘t even Left …” (exhibit 7), is closely paralleled by United‘s card with the same caption, showing a forlorn and weeping man, and with the identical inside message (exhibit 8).

In contrast to the overall impression approach taken by the court in Roth, the court in Satava v. Lowry took a very detailed-oriented approach to the evaluation under the improper appropriation element.

Satava involved two sculptors who made glass sculptures that resemble jellyfish – brightly colored glass inside a cylinder of clear glass. Here the court took great pains to determine what was merely an idea first and then excluded any similarities of ideas from the substantial similarity analysis.

Satava's glass sculpture

Satava’s glass sculpture

The originality requirement mandates that objective “facts” and ideas are not copyrightable. Similarly, expressions that are standard, stock, or common to a particular subject matter or medium are not protectable under copyright law.

It follows from these principles that no copyright protection may be afforded to the idea of producing a glass-in-glass jellyfish sculpture or to elements of expression that naturally follow from the idea of such a sculpture. Satava may not prevent others from copying aspects of his sculptures resulting from either jellyfish physiology or from their depiction in the glass-in-glass medium.

Satava may not prevent others from depicting jellyfish with tendril-like tentacles or rounded bells, because many jellyfish possess those body parts. He may not prevent others from depicting jellyfish in bright colors, because many jellyfish are brightly colored. He may not prevent others from depicting jellyfish swimming vertically, because jellyfish swim vertically in nature and often are depicted swimming vertically.

Satava may not prevent others from depicting jellyfish within a clear outer layer of glass, because clear glass is the most appropriate setting for an aquatic animal. He may not prevent others from depicting jellyfish “almost filling the entire volume” of the outer glass shroud, because such proportion is standard in glass-in-glass sculpture. And he may not pre- vent others from tapering the shape of their shrouds, because that shape is standard in glass-in-glass sculpture.

Lowry's glass sculpture

Lowry’s glass sculpture

Satava‘s glass-in-glass jellyfish sculptures, though beautiful, combine several unprotectable ideas and standard elements. These elements are part of the public domain. They are the common property of all, and Satava may not use copyright law to seize them for his exclusive use.

It is true, of course, that a combination of unprotectable elements may qualify for copyright protection. But it is not true that any combination of unprotectable elements automatically qualifies for copyright protection. Our case law suggests, and we hold today, that a combination of unprotectable elements is eligible for copyright protection only if those elements are numerous enough and their selection and arrangement original enough that their combination constitutes an original work of authorship.

The combination of unprotectable elements in Satava‘s sculpture falls short of this standard. The selection of the clear glass, oblong shroud, bright colors, proportion, vertical orientation, and stereotyped jellyfish form, considered together, lacks the quantum of originality needed to merit copyright protection. These elements are so common- place in glass-in-glass sculpture and so typical of jellyfish physiology that to recognize copyright protection in their combination effectively would give Satava a monopoly on lifelike glass-in-glass sculptures of single jellyfish with vertical tentacles. Because the quantum of originality Satava added in combining these standard and stereotyped elements must be considered “trivial” under our case law, Satava cannot prevent other artists from combining them.

Note that the court did not say that Satava had no copyright in his sculptures; rather, the court said he did not have copyright protection in that which Lowry copied.

We do not mean to suggest that Satava has added nothing copyrightable to his jellyfish sculptures. He has made some copyrightable contributions: the distinctive curls of particular tendrils; the arrangement of certain hues; the unique shape of jellyfishes‘ bells. To the extent that these and other artistic choices were not governed by jellyfish physiology or the glass-in-glass medium, they are original elements that Satava theoretically may protect through copyright law. Satava‘s copyright on these original elements (or their combination) is “thin,” however, comprising no more than his original contribution to ideas already in the public domain. Stated another way, Satava may prevent others from copying the original features he contributed, but he may not prevent others from copying elements of expression that nature displays for all observers, or that the glass-in-glass medium suggests to all sculptors. Satava possesses a thin copyright that protects against only virtually identical copying.

What is of note is that both cases would have come out differently had they used the approach taken by the other. If the Roth court had taken a detail-oriented approach and eliminated all those aspects of the selection and arrangement that are common to most all greeting cards, what might be called functionality-driven ideas, then there would have been nothing left under copyright protection that was copied by United Cards.  Conversely, if the Satava court had merely asked whether the two sculptors works shared the same total concept and feel, the court would have concluded that they did.

Improper Appropriation – The Analysis

It basically boils down to two determinations:

  • What is protected expression and not unprotected idea?
  • Is there substantially similarity between the allegedly infringing work and the expression of the copyrighted work?

Idea/Expression Dichotomy

We talked about the idea/expression dichotomy way back in class 3 when we talked about the Nichols case. We can look at it from two directions. If we take recognized expression, let’s say a novel. Then we start to create greater and greater levels of abstractions from that expression. At some point of abstraction, it will become idea not expression. Taken from the other direction, we can take an idea and start adding more and more details. At some point it will become expression. Of course, where that line is, no one knows.

The quoted portions of the Satava case above are an example of a court looking at the idea/expression dichotomy.

Substantial Similarity

You’ll note that we ran into the term “substantial similarity” last week when we were talking about the copying element. One of the most common ways to prove copying was to do so by inference: showing the defendant had access to the copyright protected work and showing that the allegedly infringing work was substantially similar. From those circumstances, a judge or jury could conclude that copying had occurred.

We see the same words in the improper appropriation analysis, but the test is different. This is one of the frequent sources of confusion. In the copying analysis, we look to dissect the two works as experts would and then ask how similar they are, and we are not concerned about which parts of the copyright protected work are actually protected by copyright.

In contrast, under the improper appropriation analysis, we ask whether certain parts of the two works would be considered substantially similar to an ordinary observer. In Arnstein v. Porter, the court said that the ordinary observer was a lay person. Basically, your average person off the street. However, that was refined, or perhaps clarified, in Dawson v. Hinshaw.

Dawson v. Hinson involved to composers of spirituals, with Dawson accusing Hinshaw Music, among others, of having copied his arrangement of “Ezekial Saw De Wheel.” (The music is linked here.)

As a part of the improper appropriation test, the court said that the ordinary observer should be one who was the intended audience of the work. The court explained how this was what Arnstein case actually stood for, despite its use of the “lay person” language, and how this best served the incentive theory underlying copyright.

Arnstein v. Porter provides the source of modern theory regarding the ordinary observer test. Arnstein involved the alleged infringement of a popular musical composition. Writing for the panel, Judge Jerome Frank first explained that “the plaintiff‘s legally protected interest is not, as such, his reputation as a musician but his interest in the potential financial returns from his compositions which derive from the lay public‘s approbation.” This initial observation gave force to the recognized purpose of the copyright laws of providing creators with a financial incentive to create for the ultimate benefit of the public.

Consistent with its economic incentive view of copyright law, the Arnstein court concluded that “the question, therefore, is whether defendant took from plaintiff‘s works so much of what is pleasing to the ears of lay listeners, who comprise the audience for whom such popular music is composed, that defendant wrongfully appropriated something which belongs to plaintiff.” Thus, under Arnstein, a court should look to the reaction of “lay listeners,” because they comprise the audience of the plaintiff‘s work. The lay listener‘s reaction is relevant because it gauges the effect of the defendant‘s work on the plaintiff‘s market.

Although Arnstein established a sound foundation for the appeal to audience reaction, its reference to “lay listeners” may have fostered the development of a rule that has come to be stated too broadly. Under the facts before it, with a popular composition at issue, the Arnstein court appropriately perceived “lay listeners” and the works‘ “audience” to be the same. However, under Arnstein‘s sound logic, the lay listeners are relevant only because they comprise the relevant audience. Although Arnstein does not address the question directly, we read the case‘s logic to require that where the intended audience is significantly more specialized than the pool of lay listeners, the reaction of the intended audience would be the relevant inquiry. In light of the copyright law‘s purpose of protecting a creator‘s market, we think it sensible to embrace Arnstein‘s command that the ultimate comparison of the works at issue be oriented towards the works‘ intended audience.

To further confuse the matter, how you determine whether it is substantially similar to the intended audience often comes down to the testimony of experts. So you have experts testifying about the technical similarities of the entire work in the first element (copying) while you have experts testifying about what a certain group of people would think about the similarity of certain elements of the works. No room for confusion there at all…

…and that does not even start to take into account when you enter areas like computer software. Read on if you dare – Computer Associates v. Altai.

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Copyright Class 8 – Infringement, Part 1

This week we move into a complicated topic – copyright infringement. This one will be a multi-class topic. The law on the second element of infringement, which we will take up next week, is one of the more confusing and confused parts of copyright law.

We have three cases this week, all involving music. First up is a classic case from the 1940’s, Arnstein v. Porter. That case sets up the two elements of proving infringement: copying and improper appropriation. Then we have two cases examining the first element, copying: Selle v. Gibb and Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music, Inc.

The Basic Infringement Analysis – Arnstein v. Porter

Ira Arnstein sued Cole Porter claiming that a number of songs recorded by Porter infringed the copyright in a number of Arnstein’s musical works. The Second Circuit, in reviewing the decision of the lower court, set out the two elements a plaintiff needs to prove to make a case for copyright infringement.

[I]t is important to avoid confusing two separate elements essential to a plaintiff’s case in such a suit: (a) that defendant copied from the plaintiff’s copyrighted work and (b) that the copying (assuming it to be proved) went so far as to constitute improper appropriation.

So, a copyright owner has to prove that the defendant copied from the plaintiff’s protected work and that what the defendant copied was protected by copyright.

Cole Porter - Composing or Copying?

Cole Porter – Composing or Copying?

The easiest way to understand the reason you have to separately show copying is to understand what is not copying and therefore not infringement. It is not copying if the defendant came up with the allegedly infringing work on their own without copying (consciously or unconsciously from the plaintiff’s work), even if the two works are identical. That is a maxim of copyright law, though we will see that a defendant whose work is strikingly similar to a plaintiff’s work may have difficulties even if he came up with the work on his own. A court won’t disregard the need to find the copying occurred, but if the two works are identical, the court may have a hard time believing that the defendant did not copy the plaintiff’s work.

Another way in which two works might be very similar and yet not have resulted from one copying the other is if both the plaintiff’s work and the defendant’s work were copied from the same third source. If the plaintiff copied from an older work and the defendant copied from the same old work, the two resulting works could be very similar and yet the defendant did not copy the plaintiff’s work.

Copying can be established either by showing direct or indirect evidence of copying. Direct evidence might be an admission by the defendant, testimony of third parties who witnessed the copying, or some other proof. We saw one other way in Feist v. Rural Telephone Co a few weeks ago. Rural Telephone had inserted a few fake names and numbers in their telephone book in order to detect copying.

Indirect evidence involves the court drawing an inference that copying occurred from circumstantial evidence. Basically, if the plaintiff can show that the defendant had access to the work and that there is substantial similarity between the plaintiff’s work and the defendant’s work, then the court can infer copying took place. The defendant can rebut such an inference by introducing evidence of how the work was created independently.

More controversially, the Arnstein court said that even in the absence of any evidence of access to the plaintiff’s protected work, the inference of copying can still be made if the two works are strikingly similar. Other courts frequently recite this possibility but some courts have said that there needs to be some evidence of access, with the strength of the access evidence varying conversely with the needed level of similarity. Selle v. Gibb takes up this issue.

The improper appropriation element asks a different question. Once the plaintiff has established that the defendant copied form the plaintiff’s work, the plaintiff still has to prove that what the defendant copied is something protected by copyright. For example, ideas are not protected by copyright. So a defendant could admit to stealing the ideas from the plaintiff’s work without having to worry about infringing the plaintiff’s rights under copyright. We’ll look at this element in more detail next week.

Copying – Selle v. Gibb and Bright Tunes Music v Harrisong Music

Is Travolta pointing at copyright infringers?

Is Travolta pointing at copyright infringers?

Selle maintained that the Bee Gee’s song “How Deep Is Your Love” infringed his song “Let It End” (listen for yourself). Selle brought in an expert, a professor of music, who testified about the similarity of the two songs.

According to Dr. Parsons’ testimony, the first eight bars of each song (Theme A) have twenty-four of thirty-four notes in plaintiff’s composition and twenty-four of forty notes in defendants’ composition which are identical in pitch and symmetrical position. Of thirty-five rhythmic impulses in plaintiff’s composition and forty in defendants’, thirty are identical. In the last four bars of both songs (Theme B), fourteen notes in each are identical in pitch, and eleven of the fourteen rhythmic impulses are identical. Both Theme A and Theme B appear in the same position in each song but with different intervening material.

Dr. Parsons testified that, in his opinion, “the two songs had such striking similarities that they could not have been written independent of one another.” He also testified that he did not know of two songs by different composers “that contain as many striking similarities” as do the two songs at issue here. However, on several occasions, he declined to say that the similarities could only have resulted from copying.

Despite what might have qualified as striking similarity, the trial judge overturned a jury verdict in the plaintiff’s favor because the judge said that the plaintiff had not met their burden of proof on the element of copying. More specifically, the judge said that they needed some proof that the defendants had access to the plaintiff’s song, something that extended beyond mere speculation or conjecture.

As a threshold matter, therefore, it would appear that there must be at least some other evidence which would establish a reasonable possibility that the complaining work was available to the alleged infringer. As noted, two works may be identical in every detail, but, if the alleged infringer created the accused work independently or both works were copied from a common source in the public domain, then there is no infringement. Therefore, if the plaintiff admits to having kept his or her creation under lock and key, it would seem logically impossible to infer access through striking similarity. Thus, although it has frequently been written that striking similarity alonecan establish access, the decided cases suggest that this circumstance would be most unusual. The plaintiff must always present sufficient evidence to support a reasonable possibility of access because the jury cannot draw an inference of access based upon speculation and conjecture alone.

In granting the defendants’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, Judge Leighton relied primarily on the plaintiff’s failure to adduce any evidence of access and stated that an inference of access may not be based on mere conjecture, speculation or a bare possibility of access. 567 F.Supp. at 1181. Thus, in Testa v. Janssen, 492 F.Supp. 198, 202-03 (W.D.Pa. 1980), the court stated that “[t]o support a finding of access, plaintiffs’ evidence must extend beyond mere speculation or conjecture. And, while circumstantial evidence is sufficient to establish access, a defendant’s opportunity to view the copyrighted work must exist by a reasonable possibility — not a bare possibility” (citation omitted).

It should also be noted that the Bee Gee’s introduced quite a bit of testimony about the process by which they created their song “How Deep Is Your Love.”

In Bright Tunes, the plaintiff claimed the that George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord” infringed “He’s So Fine” composed by Ronald Mack and recorded by The Chiffons.

Did they always leave the ‘c’ as lowercase or was it just done here to accommodate her right foot?

Here, unlike Selle’s “Let It End”, The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” enjoyed quite a bit of popular success. It was #1 in America for a time and was a top hit in England as well. So access was easily established. Substantial similarity was also shown fairly easily. The main import of this particular case is that the court accepted that George Harrison did not intentionally or consciously copy “He’s So Fine.” The court accepted Harrison’s proffered description of how he wrote and composed “My Sweet Lord.” However, the court said it did not matter that the copying was unconscious; it still satisfied that element of the copyright infringement analysis.

What happened? I conclude that the composer, in seeking musical materials to clothe his thoughts, was working with various possibilities. As he tried this possibility and that, there came to the surface of his mind a particular combination that pleased him as being one he felt would be appealing to a prospective listener; in other words, that this combination of sounds would work. Why? Because his subconscious knew it already had worked in a song his conscious mind did not remember. Having arrived at this pleasing combination of sounds, the recording was made, the lead sheet prepared for copyright and the song became an enormous success. Did Harrison deliberately use the music of He’s So Fine? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless, it is clear that My Sweet Lord is the very same song as He’s So Fine with different words, and Harrison had access to He’s So Fine. This is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.

Next week – Improper Appropriation

So copying is the first element that must be shown. Well technically you have to show ownership of a valid copyright first, but once that is done, the court moves on to the two step infringement analysis. Once copying is established the next step in the analysis is to prove improper appropriation. Next week!

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Copyright Class 6 – Joint Authorship

So, what we will be looking at this week is two special categories of authorship: joint authorship and works for hire. We’ll examine what the law says about each and then what  impact that has for writers. I’m going to split them into two different posts to keep the length down to a manageable level. So today, it’s joint authorship.

What happens when two or more people contribute to a single work of authorship? That is the basic question we will start with.

Copyright law uses the term joint authors while the copyright act refers to joint works. You may also see terms like co-authors and collaborators.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act provides the following definition:

A “joint work” is a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.

The first aspect to note is that the statute defines what qualifies as a joint work, and thus who qualifies as joint authors. What I want you to take away from that initially is that you cannot simply decide who is a joint author. Each putative joint author has to do “something.” So you can’t write a book and then make your best friend is going to be a joint author. You can of course make them a co-owner of the copyright by transferring half of your ownership interest to them, but that does not make them a joint author.

Now, we will see that intending joint authorship status is likely necessary to being joint authors, but it is not  sufficient by itself to create joint authorship. So a court may require that you have intended for the other person to be a joint author, but that by itself won’t accomplish it.

So, what do you have to do to qualify as a joint author?

Let’s look at our first case: Childress v. Taylor. Here’s what led up to the case:

Moms Mabley

Defendant Clarice Taylor has been an actress for over forty years, performing on stage, radio, television, and in film. After portraying “Moms” Mabley in a skit in an off-off-Broadway production ten years ago, Taylor became interested in developing a play based on Mabley’s life. Taylor began to assemble material about “Moms” Mabley, interviewing her friends and family, collecting her jokes, and reviewing library resources.

In 1985, Taylor contacted the plaintiff, playwright Alice Childress, about writing a play based on “Moms” Mabley. Childress had written many plays, for one of which she won an “Obie” award. Taylor had known Childress since the 1940s when they were both associated with the American Negro Theatre in Harlem and had previously acted in a number of Childress’s plays.

When Taylor first mentioned the “Moms” Mabley project to Childress in 1985, Childress stated she was not interested in writing the script because she was too occupied with other works. However, when Taylor approached Childress again in 1986, Childress agreed, though she was reluctant due to the time constraints involved. Taylor had interested the Green Plays Theatre in producing the as yet unwritten play, but the theatre had only one slot left on its summer 1986 schedule, and in order to use that slot, the play had to be written in six weeks.

Taylor turned over all of her research material to Childress, and later did further research at Childress’s request. It is undisputed that Childress wrote the play, entitled “Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne.” However, Taylor, in addition to providing the research material, which according to her involved a process of sifting through facts and selecting pivotal and key elements to include in a play on “Moms” Mabley’s life, also discussed with Childress the inclusion of certain general scenes and characters in the play. Additionally, Childress and Taylor spoke on a regular basis about the progress of the play.

Taylor identifies the following as her major contributions to the play: (1) she learned through interviews that “Moms” Mabley called all of her piano players “Luther,” so Taylor suggested that the play include such a character; (2) Taylor and Childress together interviewed Carey Jordan, “Moms” Mabley’s housekeeper, and upon leaving the interview they came to the conclusion that she would be a good character for the play, but Taylor could not recall whether she or Childress suggested it; (3) Taylor informed Childress that “Moms” Mabley made a weekly trip to Harlem to do ethnic food shopping; (4) Taylor suggested a street scene in Harlem with speakers because she recalled having seen or listened to such a scene many times; (5) the idea of using a minstrel scene came out of Taylor’s research; (6) the idea of a card game scene also came out of Taylor’s research, although Taylor could not recall who specifically suggested the scene; (7) some of the jokes used in the play came from Taylor’s research; and (8) the characteristics of “Moms” Mabley’s personality portrayed in the play emerged from Taylor’s research. Essentially, Taylor contributed facts and details about “Moms” Mabley’s life and discussed some of them with Childress. However, Childress was responsible for the actual structure of the play and the dialogue.

Childress completed the script within the six-week time frame. Childress filed for and received a copyright for the play in her name. Taylor produced the play at the Green Plays Theatre in Lexington, New York, during the 1986 summer season and played the title role.

Childress and Taylor then had a falling out when they could not agree how to proceed with the play after a few initial runs. After that falling out, Taylor hired a different playwright, gave him a copy of the play written by Childress, and told him which parts to change. That second play was produced in 1987.

Childress sued Taylor and the others involved in the second play for copyright infringement, among other things. In defense, Taylor claimed that she was a joint author of the original play. You see, if she were a joint author of the original, then she would have equal rights with Taylor and thus would be able to do whatever she wanted with the first play without it being copyright infringement (though she would have to account to Taylor for any profits).

The court looked at the definition of a joint work from section 101 of the Copyright Act and identified three essential elements necessary to qualify as a joint author: (1) a copyrightable contribution, (2) the requisite intention, and (3) a unitary whole.  It is the first two that are at issue in most disputes.  The court explained those two:

Nevertheless, we are persuaded to side with the position taken by the case law and endorsed by the agency administering the Copyright Act. The insistence on copyrightable contributions by all putative joint authors might serve to prevent some spurious claims by those who might otherwise try to share the fruits of the efforts of a sole author of a copyrightable work, even though a claim of having contributed copyrightable material could be asserted by those so inclined. More important, the prevailing view strikes an appropriate balance in the domains of both copyright and contract law. In the absence of contract, the copyright remains with the one or more persons who created copyrightable material. Contract law enables a person to hire another to create a copyrightable work, and the copyright law will recognize the employer as “author.” 17 U.S.C. s 201(b). Similarly, the person with non- copyrightable material who proposes to join forces with a skilled writer to produce a copyrightable work is free to make a contract to disclose his or her material in return for assignment of part ownership of the resulting copyright. Id. s 201(d). And, as with all contract matters, the parties may minimize subsequent disputes by formalizing their agreement in a written contract. Cf. 17 U.S.C. s 101 (“work made for hire” definition of “specially ordered” or “commissioned” work includes requirement of written agreement). It seems more consistent with the spirit of copyright law to oblige all joint authors to make copyrightable contributions, leaving those with non-copyrightable contributions to protect their rights through contract.

There remains for consideration the crucial aspect of joint authorship–the nature of the intent that must be entertained by each putative joint author at the time the contribution of each was created. The wording of the statutory definition appears to make relevant only the state of mind regarding the unitary nature of the finished work–an intention “that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” However, an inquiry so limited would extend joint author status to many persons who are not likely to have been within the contemplation of Congress. For example, a writer frequently works with an editor who makes numerous useful revisions to the first draft, some of which will consist of additions of copyrightable expression. Both intend their contributions to be merged into inseparable parts of a unitary whole, yet very few editors and even fewer writers would expect the editor to be accorded the status of joint author, enjoying an undivided half interest in the copyright in the published work. Similarly, research assistants may on occasion contribute to an author some protectable expression or merely a sufficiently original selection of factual material as would be entitled to a copyright, yet not be entitled to be regarded as a joint author of the work in which the contributed material appears. What distinguishes the writer-editor relationship and the writer- researcher relationship from the true joint author relationship is the lack of intent of both participants in the venture to regard themselves as joint authors.

The court went on to find that Childress had not had the requisite intent to be a joint author with Taylor. The court deduced that intent not from the playwright’s statements during litigation but rather from objective indicia contemporaneous to the creation and production of the play.

A different court came to an identical conclusion given very similar facts in Erickson v. Trinity Theater. Erickson held both that each putative joint authors contributions had to be separately copyrightable and that each author have the requisite intent described in Childress.

Take note of the step that Childress took and that Erickson followed with respect to intent. The statute appears to require only that the putative joint authors have created their contributions with the contemporaneous intent to joint that contribution with someone else’s contribution to form a unitary work. It’s their intention in the act of creation. However, the Childress court, later followed by the Erickson court, added to that intention requirement by saying that each putative joint author had to intend the legal status of joint authorship.

This reflects judicial hostility toward finding joint authorship. That hostility stems from the broad, virtually unchecked rights granted to joint authors. A joint author can do whatever they want with the copyrighted work without the need to seek any permission whatsoever from the other joint author. The only “limit” is that one joint author has to account to the other joint author for any profits from said activity. But if one joint author wanted to give the work away, the other joint author could do nothing about it.  As the court in Childress said,

Intent matters.

Intent matters.

Examination of whether the putative co-authors ever shared an intent to be co- authors serves the valuable purpose of appropriately confining the bounds of joint authorship arising by operation of copyright law, while leaving those not in a true joint authorship relationship with an author free to bargain for an arrangement that will be recognized as a matter of both copyright and contract law. Joint authorship entitles the co-authors to equal undivided interests in the work, see 17 U.S.C. s 201(a); Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, 846 F.2d 1485, 1498 (D.C.Cir.1988), aff’d without consideration of this point, 490 U.S. 730, 109 S.Ct. 2166, 104 L.Ed.2d 811 (1989). That equal sharing of rights should be reserved for relationships in which all participants fully intend to be joint authors. The sharing of benefits in other relationships involving assistance in the creation of a copyrightable work can be more precisely calibrated by the participants in their contract negotiations regarding division of royalties or assignment of shares of ownership of the copyright, see 17 U.S.C. s 201(d).

There are several other interesting cases in this area: Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane fighting over joint authorship of some side characters in the Spawn universe in Gaiman LLC v. McFarlane; an expert on Malcom X claiming joint authorship in the Spike Lee movie based on consulting work done on set in Aalmuhammed v. Lee; and a very recent case about an actress in the video “Innocence of Muslims” claiming a copyright interest in her parts of the video. In the last case, the underlying situation was similar to other joint authorship cases but her legal claims were slightly different.

So what should you take away from this as an author?

First, you don’t need to worry too much about losing a case in which an editor or critique group member claims to be a joint author of your work. Intent within a working relationship is very important. (But not this sort of intent.)

Second, because the default rules for joint authors do very little to regulate control between the two joint authors, you really should not rely on the default rules. Instead, you should have collaboration agreement with any co-authors. See this earlier post.

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Copyright Class 5 – Snow Delay

Can't … reach … keyboard ...

Can’t … reach … keyboard …

 

Our regularly scheduled class will be snow delayed.  The winter fun has altered my travel plans which has in turn pushed this blog post back a day or two. I should be able to get the class up by Saturday night or Sunday at the latest.

Once I post it, we will be talking about two special types of authorship under US copyright law: Joint Authorship and Work for Hire. The cases we will be reading are Childress v. Taylor and CCNV v. Reid, in case you want to get a head start.

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Copyright Class 4 – Superstars Special Edition

Today I’m going to take a slight detour with the class. The live class at the law school is canceled today because I am in Colorado Springs speaking at the Superstars Writing Seminar. So what I thought I would do today is share with you some of the thoughts that I am including in my talk at the seminar. My session is basically a primer on copyright and other intellectual property law for authors. For class today, I am going to focus on two of the most important parts of my talk: “a bundle of sticks” and “can I?”

A Bundle of Sticks

Understanding this metaphor is important to making proper business decisions regarding one of your primary assets as a writer – your copyright.

In law, we use the metaphor of a bundle of sticks to describe property. Typically, a lay person (i.e. someone who is not trained as a lawyer) would think that property is a thing – a ring, a car, or a house.  For a lawyer, property is an intangible set of rights. The thing – the ring, the car, the house – are the subjects of property. They are the things to which the rights attach.

A bundle of sticks is the metaphor we use to describe that intangible set of rights. We describe it as a bundle of sticks rather than saying it is a single stick because each of those sticks can be owned by different people. For example, if someone owns an easement right of way over your land, then ownership is split. You own most of the sticks in the bundle, but the owner of the easement owns a few sticks in that bundle.

How does this relate to copyright?

Copyright is a type of property. Instead of being an intangible set of rights that attach to a physical object, copyright is an intangible set of rights that attach to an intangible object – the work of authorship. So copyright can also be thought of as a bundle of sticks.

Why is understanding this so important for writers?

You can (and often should) transfer the sticks in that bundle separately.  In fact, one of the most important parts of negotiating any contract is looking at which sticks are transferred and making certain that you are not transferring more sticks than what you are being paid for. If someone is paying you a value that is appropriate for book rights in North America but you are granting that person all of the sticks in the bundle, all of the copyright, then you are giving away value.

Can I?

I frequently get questions from authors along the lines of “Can I do this”? An example would be “Can I use song lyrics in my short story?”

That is a question that seems straightforward but I maintain that it is really three questions. Or at least, writers should think about it as three different questions.  Here are the three questions for traditional publishing:

  • What will a court of law determine?
  • Will I have to defend a suit by a copyright holder?
  • How will an editor/publisher react to the possibility of a lawsuit?

For indie publishing, the third question is slightly different:

  • What will a court of law determine?
  • Will I have to defend a suit by a copyright holder?
  • How will a retailer react to a take-down notice from the rights holder?

The first question is what both the writer and the lawyer typically think of first. It is important and it impacts the other question, but it may not be what drives your ultimate decision.

The second question (“Will I have to defend a suit by a copyright holder?”) may drive your decision because having to litigate a lawsuit may cost you a lot of money and time, even if you ultimately win the case in slam dunk fashion. You have to ask yourself if this particular part of your story, the element that may get you sued, is worth the risk of that cost. What is your purpose? Is it to make a living? Is it to make a point that requires the questionable content?

The third question (“How will an editor/publisher react to the possibility of a lawsuit?”) keys on your ability to get past a gatekeeper in traditional publisher. If you include something in your story or novel that scares an editor or publisher about the possibility of getting sued, then that may make the editor reject your work in favor of a work of similar quality that does not carry the same risk. For indie publishers, you have to worry about a retailer (e.g. Amazon) pulling your book if they are threatened by a rights holder.

Thus, questions two and three quite often will dictate your choice even without having a full answer to the first question or even when the answer to the first question is that you would win the lawsuit.

I’ve discussed this in detail previously, a discussion you can find here.

So, how might this relate to what we have talked about in this class so far? Recall what we talked about last week

Judge Hand started his analysis by pointing out that if literal copying were required in order for infringement to be found, then it would be painfully easy for someone to copy a work while escaping liability. Would you think someone could just change the names of the characters in a book and thereby escape from copyright infringement? Clearly not. Thus it should be apparent that an exact word for word copy is not necessary for a plaintiff to make out a basis for infringement.

However, if the copier only takes the most basic premise, then the copier may not be an infringer. Note that the case is not talking about a motion picture that happens to be similar to a play. The analysis and conclusion assumes that the creators of the movie did take the premise from the play – and still found no infringement.

But when the plagiarist does not take out a block in situ, but an abstract of the whole, decision is more troublesome. Upon any work, and especially upon a play, a great number of patterns of increasing generality will fit equally well, as more and more of the incident is left out. The last may perhaps be no more than the most general statement of what the play is about, and at times might consist only of its title; but there is a point in this series of abstractions where they are no longer protected, since otherwise the playwright could prevent the use of his “ideas,” to which, apart from their ex- pression, his property is never extended.

This series of abstractions is at the heart of what we call the idea/expression dichotomy. Ideas are not protected but expression is. Thus, copying ideas is not infringement while copying expression is. But what constitutes “idea” and what constitutes “expression”? That’s where the series of abstractions comes into play.

So, you’ve written a book that has a plot similar to another book. Can you do that? Well, we could do the analysis described by Judge Hand. We could apply the idea/expression and try to answer the question of what a court would conclude. But we should also consider the likelihood we might be sued and whether an editor we might submit our book to might not want to publish our book because it is too similar to the other book.

The answers to the second and third questions may be more influential in your decision-making than the answer to the first question. Now, the questions are all related. The closer the call is on the first question, the more certain we are that the action is infringing, the more likely we will reach negative answers on questions two and three.

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Copyright Class 3 – Copyright Protection and Ideas

Welcome to the snowpocalypse version of copyright class.  This is where following a virtual version has its advantages. The live class was actually canceled since the law school was closed today. I decided to go ahead with the class here on the blog.

Today’s class will continue to explore the lack of copyright protection for ideas. One of the most basic principles of copyright is that copyright protects expression but not ideas. Last week’s class examined this from the standpoint of attempts to protect “facts.” Because those “facts” were not created by the author, but instead were discovered, they did not receive copyright protection. They were not original.

This week, we are still dealing with ideas, but these ideas are created by someone. They can be seen as originating from the author, but the law still might not protect them. What we will see is that ideas are not protected but expression is.

In writing, we might describe this as an idea for a book. If I write a book about a vampire hunter who rides a unicorn, can I get copyright protection for that idea? Could I successfully sue someone who wrote a completely different novel about a vampire hunter who rides a unicorn? That’s the question we want to answer today.

A Brief Meta Detour

But before we get into that, I’d like to go a bit meta on you. There are a couple of things I want to tell you about this blog series, based on comments and feedback I’ve gotten up until this point.

1. I’m linking to the full text of each case. If you want a fuller effect, you should be reading those primary texts. Of course, you still won’t have anything close to the full copyright class experience (see the caveats here), but you should get more out of it if you read the full texts. The easiest approach would be to get a copy of the casebook we are using Copyright Law: Essential Cases and Materials by Yen ad Liu. But it costs around $200 – so I’m not expecting that to be a popular option. That’s why I’m linking to online versions of the cases. Just be aware that the online versions of the cases are not edited as the cases in the book are. Quite often they will contain and discuss many more issues than what we are reading them for. So you will want to realize that portions of the cases will not be relevant to what we are discussing that week.

I have been putting some of the highlights in the posts themselves, but I’m not going to necessarily put everything in the posts themselves for two reasons.

First, I’m not trying to write a book. And that’s what it would be if I included every detail.

Second, the posts would be too long for what some people want. So you have a choice. Read just the posts or read the cases plus the posts. Either is fine, just realize you are getting a different experience with each option.

2. Keep in mind that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. No one is going to come out of this blog series as a copyright lawyer. Even a law student taking the full course is just taking the first step toward being a copyright lawyer.

Ideas and Copyright Protection

OK, with those points out of the way, let’s get back to the content: Ideas and Copyright Protection. Expression is protected by copyright; ideas are not.

We read three cases for today: Baker v. Selden, Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., and Kregos v. Associate Press.

Baker v. Selden

Slightly more interesting than baseball

Slightly more interesting than baseball

This is one of the most cited cases in the copyright world. It involved a book on a particular system of accounting that the author licensed to various government agencies in Ohio. That’s right! An accounting book! Clearly this is going to a thriller the like soy which would make Patterson himself jealous.

They third paragraph nicely sums up the dispute:

The book or series of books of which the complainant claims the copyright consists of an introductory essay explaining the system of bookkeeping referred to, to which are annexed certain forms or banks, consisting of ruled lines, and headings, illustrating the system and showing how it is to be used and carried out in practice. This system effects the same results as bookkeeping by double entry, but, by a peculiar arrangement of columns and headings, presents the entire operation, of a day, a week, or a month on a single page or on two pages facing each other, in an account book. The defendant uses a similar plan so far as results are concerned, but makes a different arrangement of the columns, and uses different headings. If the complainant’s testator had the exclusive right to the use of the system explained in his book, it would be difficult to contend that the defendant does not infringe it, notwithstanding the difference in his form of arrangement; but if it be assumed that the system is open to public use, it seems to be equally difficult to contend that the books made and sold by the defendant are a violation of the copyright of the complainant’s book considered merely as a book explanatory of the system.

So the question is whether the Selden’s copyright in his accounting book is infringed by a book that (1) describes a system (and provides forms for such a system) that works in the same way as Selden’s system but that (2) does not copy the actual text and forms in Selden’s books. Stated another way, the question is whether the copyright in the book protects the system itself.

The Court concludes that it does not, stating “[b]ut there is a clear distinction between the book as such and the art which it is intended to illustrate.” The latter, as the Court pointed out, could only be protected by a patent if at all. The Court concluded:

The conclusion to which we have come is that blank account books are not the subject of copyright, and that the mere copyright of Selden’s book did not confer upon him the exclusive right to make and use account books, ruled and arranged as designated by him and described and illustrated in said book.

That conclusion if read  too broad might arguably be incorrect. It goes further than what the court actually discussed. In other words, the court found that what was copied from Selden was not protected by copyright. For example, if someone had directly reproduced Selden’s books exactly word for word, form for form, then we would probably not have any trouble saying some level of copyright infringement occurred.  If they reproduced his forms exactly but not the text, we would have a much tougher question, involving a doctrinal analysis beyond what Baker v. Selden covered.

Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp.

Of all the cases we have read so far, this one is probably the most directly relevant for authors. It really gets at the heart of the question I asked above. You know, the one involving a vampire hunter riding a unicorn.

Not going to risk an attempt at humor here

Not going to risk an attempt at humor here

The opinion was also written by a judge not only famous but also blessed with one of the greatest names ever for a judge – Learned Hand. Yep, Judge Learned Hand. Who needs a pen name when you have a real name like that?

The dispute involved the author of a play (“Abie’s Irish Rose”) arguing that a movie (“The Cohen’s and the Kelly’s”) infringed his copyright.  In order to understand the implications of the court’s holdings, it is critical to understand the similarities and differences between the two. And because I am too lazy to paraphrase all of it but not quite too lazy to cut and paste from the case, you get a long block quote:

“Abie’s Irish Rose” presents a Jewish family living in prosperous circumstances in New York. The father, a widower, is in business as a merchant, in which his son and only child helps him. The boy has philandered with young women, who to his father’s great disgust have always been Gen- tiles, for he is obsessed with a passion that his daughter-in-law shall be an orthodox Jewess. When the play opens the son, who has been courting a young Irish Catholic girl, has already married her secretly before a Protestant minister, and is concerned to soften the blow for his father, by securing a favorable impression of his bride, while concealing her faith and race. To accomplish this he in- troduces her to his father at his home as a Jewess, and lets it appear that he is interested in her, though he conceals the marriage. The girl somewhat reluctantly falls in with the plan; the father takes the bait, becomes infatuated with the girl, concludes that they must marry, and assumes that of course they will, if he so decides. He calls in a rabbi, and prepares for the wedding according to the Jewish rite.

Meanwhile the girl’s father, also a widower, who lives in California, and is as intense in his own religious antagonism as the Jew, has been called to New York, supposing that his daughter is to marry an Irishman and a Catholic. Accompanied by a priest, he arrives at the house at the moment when the marriage is being celebrated, but too late to prevent it, and the two fathers, each infuriated by the proposed union of his child to a heretic, fall into unseemly and grotesque antics. The priest and the rabbi become friendly, exchange trite sentiments about religion, and agree that the match is good. Apparently out of abundant caution, the priest celebrates the marriage for a third time, while the girl’s father is inveigled away. The second act closes with each father, still outraged, seeking to find some way by which the union, thus trebly insured, may be dissolved.

The last act takes place about a year later, the young couple having meanwhile been abjured by each father, and left to their own resources. They have had twins, a boy and a girl, but their fathers know no more than that a child has been born. At Christmas each, led by his craving to see his grandchild, goes separately to the young folks’ home, where they encounter each other, each laden with gifts, one for a boy, the other for a girl. After some slapstick comedy, depending upon the in- sistence of each that he is right about the sex of the grandchild, they become reconciled when they learn the truth, and that each child is to bear the given name of a grandparent. The curtain falls as the fathers are exchanging amenities, and the Jew giving evidence of an abatement in the strictness of his orthodoxy.

“The Cohens and The Kellys” presents two families, Jewish and Irish, living side by side in the poorer quarters of New York in a state of perpetual enmity. The wives in both cases are still living, and share in the mutual animosity, as do two small sons, and even the respective dogs. The Jews have a daughter, the Irish a son; the Jewish father is in the clothing business; the Irishman is a po- liceman. The children are in love with each other, and secretly marry, apparently after the play opens. The Jew, being in great financial straits, learns from a lawyer that he has fallen heir to a large fortune from a great-aunt, and moves into a great house, fitted luxuriously. Here he and his family live in vulgar ostentation, and here the Irish boy seeks out his Jewish bride, and is chased away by the angry father. The Jew then abuses the Irishman over the telephone, and both become hysterically excited. The extremity of his feelings makes the Jew sick, so that he must go to Florida for a rest, just before which the daughter discloses her marriage to her mother.

On his return the Jew finds that his daughter has borne a child; at first he suspects the lawyer, but eventually learns the truth and is overcome with anger at such a low alliance. Meanwhile, the Irish family who have been forbidden to see the grandchild, go to the Jew’s house, and after a vio- lent scene between the two fathers in which the Jew disowns his daughter, who decides to go back with her husband, the Irishman takes her back with her baby to his own poor lodgings. [*121] The lawyer, who had hoped to marry the Jew’s daughter, seeing his plan foiled, tells the Jew that his for- tune really belongs to the Irishman, who was also related to the dead woman, but offers to conceal his knowledge, if the Jew will share the loot. This the Jew repudiates, and, leaving the astonished lawyer, walks through the rain to his enemy’s house to surrender the property. He arrives in great dejection, tells the truth, and abjectly turns to leave. A reconciliation ensues, the Irishman agreeing to share with him equally. The Jew shows some interest in his grandchild, though this is at most a minor motive in the reconciliation, and the curtain falls while the two are in their cups, the Jew in- sisting that in the firm name for the business, which they are to carry on jointly, his name shall stand first.

Judge Hand started his analysis by pointing out that if literal copying were required in order for infringement to be found, then it would be painfully easy for someone to copy a work while escaping liability. Would you think someone could just change the names of the characters in a book and thereby escape from copyright infringement? Clearly not. Thus it should be apparent that an exact word for word copy is not necessary for a plaintiff to make out a basis for infringement.

However, if the copier only takes the most basic premise, then the copier may not be an infringer. Note that the case is not talking about a motion picture that happens to be similar to a play. The analysis and conclusion assumes that the creators of the movie did take the premise from the play – and still found no infringement.

But when the plagiarist does not take out a block in situ, but an abstract of the whole, decision is more troublesome. Upon any work, and especially upon a play, a great number of patterns of increasing generality will fit equally well, as more and more of the incident is left out. The last may perhaps be no more than the most general statement of what the play is about, and at times might consist only of its title; but there is a point in this series of abstractions where they are no longer protected, since otherwise the playwright could prevent the use of his “ideas,” to which, apart from their ex- pression, his property is never extended.

This series of abstractions is at the heart of what we call the idea/expression dichotomy. Ideas are not protected but expression is. Thus, copying ideas is not infringement while copying expression is. But what constitutes “idea” and what constitutes “expression”? That’s where the series of abstractions comes into play.

If we examine the plaintiff’s play in each detail, scene for scene, word for word, we would say that we are looking at expression. We could then imagine a series of abstractions of that play where each level in that series contained fewer and fewer details, The series would continue until we got the most basic, most abstract, description of the play – something like “a comedy about the marriage of children of Irish and Jews. The idea/expression dichotomy says that at some point along that series in the direction of increased detail copyright protection begins. In over words, adding enough details and specifics results in ideas becoming expression. With too few details, no copyright protection can be had.

A comedy based upon conflicts between Irish and Jews, into which the marriage of their children enters, is no more susceptible of copyright than the outline of Romeo and Juliet.

Where do we draw that line? Well, we draw it between idea and expression. How do we know what is idea and what is expression? We draw that line. Yep, it’s that clear. As Judge Hand said, “Nobody has ever been able to fix that boundary, and nobody ever can.”

The court determines that the movie only takes the most basic of plots from the play – the conflict created by children from families of different religions who want to marry. (It was the 1920’s.) The differences between the two become apparent once you go deeper than the highest level of abstraction. The court also concludes any similarities between the two in terms of characters are to basic to qualify as infringement.

If we put this into publishing terms, we would say that something like a log line using generic characters is almost assuredly idea. As you turn that basic concept into an outline and start adding more specifics and more details, the whole of it at some point becomes expression that is protected by copyright.

Kregos v. Associate Press

Kregos picks up where Baker v. Selden left off – namely with the question of whether a blank form could be protected by copyright. It also involves a subject matter as boring as accounting – namely baseball. (Let the comment flaming commence!)

I went there.

But beer does help.

I’m not going to go into much detail here. Basically, Kregos created a form to list data about pitchers that he maintained had predictive value in how he pitchers would perform. This included making some decisions about what data to include (e.g. average base on balls for the pitcher’s last three games versus average base on balls for the pitcher that season). The court addressed two arguments that Kregos should not receive copyright protection.

First, the court said that the merger doctrine did not prevent protection. The merger doctrine basically says that if there is only one or very few ways to express an idea, then the idea and expression merge such that no copyright protection can be had. A common example is instructions for a simple game or contest. If there is only one (or a very limited number) of different ways to describe the rules of a game, then giving copyright protection to the description would effectively give someone copyright protection for the game itself. The court concluded that enough different types and combinations of data existed, that merger was not applicable.

Second, the court said that the blank form rule that emerged from Baker v. Selden did not prevent copyright protection. In essence, they said that the selection of data by Kregos might constitute enough originality to create copyright protection. Note that they said that even if it did, it would be very little copyright protection.

So, what’s the answer to our initial question? Can I sue someone who steals my idea for a book about a vampire hunter who rides a unicorn? That’s a big no. It’s just an idea.

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