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Copyright: Case Law Summary

    There are simply far too many cases (without writing a case book) to do this summary justice. Therefore, what follows are widely recognized cases that illustrate important concepts in copyright law. The cases are listed by category, although the selection of categories is somewhat arbitrary and a particular case can, and often does, fit into more than one. The idea is to provide a brief one or two sentence summary of the holding/rule and then to point to the full text of the opinion where available.

    As practical consideration, please take note that many of the cases have "big name" plaintiffs and defendants. This is indicative of the "big time litigation" (read dollars) that are associated with these kinds of cases. These are not waters where small to medium size e-businesses want to swim in, nor most large businesses for that matter. It is clear that compliance is the "low risk" strategy. Any other strategy may lead to gray and murky waters.

    Copyrightable Subject Matter

    Case: Baker v. Selden (USSC 1879)
    Summary: copyright protection does not extend to ideas and methods. [full text]

    Case: Morrissey v. Proctor & Gamble (1st Cir. 1967 )
    Summary: the idea/expression divide can extend to a limited number of expressions. [full text]

    Case: Roth Greeting Cards v. United Card Company (9th Cir. 1970)
    Summary: the entire concept of the greeting cards warranted copyright protection, despite the fact that the specific words and art work were not infringed upon. [full text]

    Case: Apple Computer v. Franklin Computer (3d Cir. 1983)
    Summary: computer software, including operating systems embedded in system ROM, are copyrightable [full text]

    Case: Brandir International v. Cascade Pacific (2d Cir. 1987 )
    Summary: where form and function are inextricably intertwined copyright protection is not warranted [full text]

    Case: Lotus v. Borland (USSC 1995)
    Summary: methods of operation within a user interface menu system are like the buttons on a VCR and not copyrightable [full text]

    Case: Computer Associates v. Altai (2d Cir. 1992)
    Summary: the "abstraction/filtration/comparison" test is first applied to certain works to determine whether or not there remains protected subject matter [full text]

    Copyright Ownership & Other Enforceable Rights

    Case: Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corporation (2d Cir. 1930)
    Summary: a court must look beyond the literal text to determine infringement, but no infringement lies where a pure abstraction has been copied. [full text]

    Case: Arnstein v. Porter (2d Cir. 1946)
    Summary: in order to establish infringement the plaintiff  must show both access (i.e. for the purpose of copying) and similarity. If no access can be shown then the two works must exhibit "striking similarity."  [full text]

    Case: Steinberg v. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. (S.D.N.Y. 1987)
    Summary:  Court defines substantial similarity as “whether an average lay observer would recognize the alleged copy as having been appropriated from the copyrighted work.”[full text]

    Case: Anderson v. Stallone (C.D. Cal. 1989)
    Summary:  A party that creates an infringing derivative work will not be granted copyright protection for the infringing work. []

    Case: Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) v. Reid (USSC 1989)
    Summary:  principles of agency law are controlling with respect to a "work for hire" where there is no express agreement[full text]

    Case: Aalmuhammed v. Spike Lee (9th Cir. 2000)
    Summary:  there must be an objective manifestation of shared intent to be co-authors and a mere creative contribution will not suffice to establish it.[full text]

    Defenses: Fair Use

    Sony v. Universal City Studios, Inc. (USSC 1984)
    Summary: if a product is widely used for legitimate, non-infringing purposes, then its use by the consuming public is considered "fair." You can also read this case as a "contributory infringement" case. However, post the Napster and Grokster cases (see below), there is heated debate as to whether Sony remains good law, but the USSC has never expressly overruled it. [full text]

    Case: American Geophysical v. Texaco (2d Cir. 1994)
    Summary: where these is a harmful effect on, and a "legitimate market" for, individual articles within a compilation of articles (e.g. a scientific journal), any copying of said articles may be found to infringing, sans any available defenses. [full text]

    Case: Cambell v. Acuff-Rose Music (USSC 1994)
    Summary: commercially viable parody may be considered "fair use." In order for it to work the parody must be able to copy/imitate enough of the original work so as to be recognizable, and therefore subject to ridicule. This is often known as the joinder of reference and ridicule. This is the 2 Live Crew "pretty woman" case.[full text]

    Case: Kelly v. Ariba Soft Corp. (9th Cir. 2003)
    Summary: some use of thumbnail images by search engines may be fair use. Also see Perfect 10 v. Google  below.[full text via link]

    Case: Perfect 10 v. Google (9th Cir. 2007)
    Summary: search engine provider again prevails with a fair use argument vis-a-vis thumbnail image results. [full text via link]

    Conributory Infringement

    Case: A&M Records v. Napster (9th Cir. 2001)
    Summary: contributory infringement would likely be found on the part of Napster because its architecture facilitated the direct infringement on the part of its users. The fair use argument on the part of users was rejected.[full text]

    Case: MGM Studios v. Grokster (USSC 2005)
    Summary:  the P2P file sharing "business model" of Grokster & Streamcast created potential liability vis-a-vis contributory infringement. The Court held as follows: "We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties." [full text]

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