Monday, March 28, 2011

Oprah Winfrey Wins Copyright Battle Over Chubbiest US President

In Harris v. Winfrey, 2011 WL 1003807 (E.D.P.A. March 18, 2011), a federal district judge dismissed a claim against Oprah Winfrey but denied sanctions under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.   Copy of motion for sanctions here.  The allegation was that Oprah took materials from a book "How America Elects Her Presidents" (I could not find this book on Amazon).   Plaintiff mailed copies of his book to Oprah, trying to get on her show.   A review of the transcript showed that the only question on Oprah's show that had any similarity to the book was a question of who was the heaviest president.  Answer:  William Howard Taft.   From the decision:

Copyright law protects only an author's original expression; historical facts and information in the public domain are not copyrightable. Id. at 547-48 (“[N]o author may copyright facts or ideas.”); see also Video Pipeline, Inc. v. Buena Vista Home Entm't, Inc., 342 F.3d 191, 199 n. 5 (3d Cir.2003) ( “[C]opyright protection does not include facts and ideas, but only their expression.”). There is “thin” copyright protection for an author's choices as to the presentation of factual matter. Feist, 499 U.S. at 348. This protection, however, is limited to the author's original, creative contributions, since copyright “protects only the elements that owe their origin to the compiler-the selection, coordination, and arrangement of facts.” Id. at 359. In Feist, for example, the Supreme Court refused to extend copyright protection to a utility company's aggregation of telephone directory information, holding that neither the “raw data” nor the manner in which it was presented qualified as original. Id. at 361.

The material plaintiffs seek to protect here is not original. Plaintiffs argue that Winfrey infringed Harris's copyright in his booklet by referring to an historical fact, President Taft's weight. (Compl.¶ 21.) Winfrey's use of this fact, even if she learned it from Harris's booklet, does not infringe any copyright Harris may have held. This information is not original to Harris, but rather is a piece of “raw data” that preexisted Harris's booklet and is available from numerous external sources.

Plaintiffs also argue that Oprah infringed the manner in which the facts were presented by copying verbatim the way in which Harris “framed the questions.” (Pls.' Resp. to Defs.' to Mot. Dismiss 5.) While the two versions of Harris's booklet presented to the Court do have some hallmarks of originality, neither contains any material in question format. Thus, the framing to which plaintiffs refer, even if copyrightable, is not implicated in this case.

State law claims of unjust enrichment, conversion and tortious interference were dismissed as preempted.    More on Rule 11 sanctions here.  More on preemption here.

Chubbiest US President - William Howard Taft - Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
 Purchase Copyright Litigation Handbook 2010 by Raymond J. Dowd from West here  

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