The Congress shall have Power...To promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries....
1976 Copyright Act, § 102
(a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. ..
. (b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or ibodied in such work.
1976 Copyright Act, § 201(d)(1)
The ownership of a copyright may be transferred in whole or in part by any means of conveyance or by operation of law, and may be bequeathed by will or pass as personal property....
1952 Patent Act, § 101
Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvient therefor, subject to the conditions and requirients of this title.
1952 Patent Act, § 154(a)(1)
Contents. Every patent shall contain a short title of the invention and a grant to the patentee, his heirs or assigns, of the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States, and, if the invention is a process, of the right to exclude others from using, offering for sale or selling throughout the United States, or importing into the United States, products made by that process, referring to the specification for the particulars thereof.
1952 Patent Act, § 261
Subject to the provisions of this title, patents shall have the attributes of personal property.
Applications for patent, patents, or any interest therein, shall be assignable in law by an instrument in writing. The applicant, patentee, or his assigns or legal representatives may in like manner grant and convey an exclusive right under his application for patent, or patents, to the whole or any specified part of the United States.
1. What inference should be drawn from the use of the verb secure in Art. I, § 8, cl. 8, rather than some other verb such as confer? Consult Wheaton v. Peters.
2. What inference should be drawn from the use of the verb subsist in 17 U.S.C. § 102(a)? Does it make any difference whether copyright protection subsists or exists?
3. Can you draw any inference from Congress' choice of giving patents the attributes of personal property? Is there any difference between a patent's being personal property and its having the attributes of personal property? Is there a difference between the copyright and patent statutes' treatment of their respective grants as personal property?
4. "The Congress shall have Power..." Is that the exclusive power to do so? Or do the states share this power? Must Congress exercise the power? To its full extent? If it doesn't, can states supplement intellectual property law?
5. "To promote the Progress..." Is that a mere passing remark as to purpose or a real limitation on the power? Suppose Congress turns Luddite? Or it unwisely passes a counterproductive intellectual property law, one that actually hinders technological progress more than it promotes it?
6. Is "for limited Times" a limitation on the power of Congress? Can Congress grant perpetual copyrights or patents? Ones for very long times? How long? What about more than 100 years?
7. As you read the cases and materials in this introductory chapter, ask yourself what is the nature of the property right in copyrights and patents. Consider the difference that results from different characterizations of the property interest with regard to riedies for infringient. If a patent is demed a property interest akin to realty, should the patentee be entitled to an award of the infringer's profits from the infringment. (Copyright owners are so entitled. Patentees once were so entitled, but then Congress changed the statute. See Aro Mfg. Co. v. Convertible Top Replacient Co., 377 U.S. 476, 505-07 (1964).) What is the nature of the property interest if the patentee may recover only the patentee's proven losses? See, Kenneth W. Dam, The Economic Underpinnings of Patent Law, 23 J. Legal Stud. 247 (1994).
Baker v. Selden
United States Supreme Court
101 U.S. 99 (1879)
Mr. Justice Bradley delivered the opinion of the Court.
Charles Selden, in the year 1859 took the requisite steps for obtaining the copyright of a book, entitled "Selden's Condensed Ledger, or Book-keeping Simplified," the object of which was to exhibit and explain a peculiar system of book-keeping. The bill of complaint was filed against the defendant, Baker, for an alleged infringient of these copyrights. The latter contends that the matter alleged to be infringed is not a lawful subject of copyright.
The book of which the complainant claims the copyright consists of an introductory essay explaining the system of book-keeping referred to, to which are annexed certain forms or blanks, 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 book-keeping by double entry; but, by a peculiar arrangient 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 arrangient of the columns, and uses different headings.
If Selden 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 arrangient; but, if it be assumed that the system is open to public use, it sems 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.
Where the truths of a science or the methods of an art are the common property of the whole world, any author has the right to express the one, or explain and use the other, in his own way. As an author, Selden explained the system in a particular way. It may be conceded that Baker makes and uses account-books arranged on substantially the same system; but the proof fails to show that he has violated the copyright of Selden's book, regarding the latter merely as an explanatory work; or that he has infringed Selden's right in any way, unless the latter became entitled to an exclusive right in the system.
The evidence of the complainant is principally directed to the object of showing that Baker uses the same system as that which is explained and illustrated in Selden's books. It becomes important, therefore, to determine whether, in obtaining the copyright of his books, he secured the exclusive right to the use of the system or method of book-keeping which the said books are intended to illustrate and explain.
It is contended that he has secured such exclusive right, because no one can use the system without using substantially the same ruled lines and headings which he appended to his books in illustration of it. In other words, it is contended that the ruled lines and headings, given to illustrate the system, are a part of the book, and, as such, are secured by the copyright; and that no one can make or use similar ruled lines and headings, or ruled lines and headings made and arranged on substantially the same system, without violating the copyright. And this is really the question to be decided in this case. Stated in another form, the question is, whether the exclusive property in a system of book-keeping can be claimed, under the law of copyright, by means of a book in which that system is explained? The complainant's bill, and the case made under it, are based on the hypothesis that it can be.
There is no doubt that a work on the subject of book-keeping, though only explanatory of well-known systems, may be the subject of a copyright; but, then, it is claimed only as a book. Such a book may be explanatory either of old systems,or of an entirely new system; and, considered as a book, as the work of an author, conveying information on the subject of book-keeping, and containing detailed explanations of the art, it may be a very valuable acquisition to the practical knowledge of the community.
But there is a clear distinction between the book, as such, and the art which it is intended to illustrate. The mere statement of the proposition is so evident, that it requires hardly any argument to support it. The same distinction may be predicated of every other art as well as that of book-keeping. A treatise on the composition and use of medicines, be they old or new; on the construction and use of ploughs, or watches, or churns; or on the mixture and application of colors for painting or dyeing; or on the mode of drawing lines to produce the effect of perspective, would be the subject of copyright; but no one would contend that the copyright of the treatise would give the exclusive right to the art or manufacture described therein.
The copyright of the book, if not pirated from other works, would be valid without regard to the novelty, or want of novelty, of its subject matter. The novelty of the art or thing described or explained has nothing to do with the validity of the copyright.
To give to the author of the book an exclusive property in the art described therein, when no examination of its novelty has ever been officially made, would be a surprise and a fraud upon the public. That is the province of letters-patent, not of copyright. The claim to an invention or discovery of an art or manufacture must be subjected to the examination of the Patent Office before an exclusive right therein can be obtained; and it can only be secured by a patent from the government.
The difference between the two things, letters-patent and copyright, may be illustrated by reference to the subjects just enumerated. Take the case of medicines. Certain mixtures are found to be of great value in the healing art. If the discoverer writes and publishes a book on the subject (as regular physicians generally do), he gains no exclusive right to the manufacture and sale of the medicine; he gives that to the public. If he desires to acquire such exclusive right, he must obtain a patent for the mixture as a new art, manufacture, or composition of matter. He may copyright his book, if he pleases; but that only secures to him the exclusive right of printing and publishing his book. So of all other inventions or discoveries.
The copyright of a book on perspective, no matter how many drawings and illustrations it may contain, gives no exclusive right to the modes of drawing described, though they may never have been known or used before. By publishing the book, without getting a patent for the art, the latter is given to the public. The fact that the art described in the book by illustrations of lines and figures which are reproduced in practice in the application of the art, makes no difference. Those illustrations are the mere language employed by the author to convey his ideas more clearly. Had he used words of description instead of diagrams (which merely stand in the place of words), there could not be the slightest doubt that others, applying the art to practical use, might lawfully draw the lines and diagrams which were in the author's mind, and which he thus described by words in his book.
The copyright of a work on mathematical science cannot give to the author an exclusive right to the methods of operation which he propounds, or to the diagrams which he employs to explain this, so as to prevent an engineer from using this whenever occasion requires.
The very object of publishing a book on science or the useful arts is to communicate to the world the useful knowledge which it contains. But this object would be frustrated if the knowledge could not be used without incurring the guilt of piracy of the book. And where the art it teaches cannot be used without employing the methods and diagrams used to illustrate the book, or such as are similar to thi, such methods and diagrams are to be considered as necessary incidents to the art, and given therewith to the public; not given for the purpose of publication in other works explanatory of the art, but for the purpose of practical application.
Of course, these observations are not intended to apply to ornamental designs, or pictorial illustrations addressed to the taste. Of these it may be said, that their form is their essence, and their object, the production of pleasure in their contiplation. This is their final end. They are as much the product of genius and the result of composition, as are the lines of the poet or the historian's period.
On the other hand, the teachings of science and the rules and methods of useful art have their final end in application and use; and this application and use are what the public derive from the publication of a book which teaches thi. But as embodied and taught in a literary composition or book, their essence consists only in their statement. This alone is what is secured by the copyright. The use by another of the same methods of statement, whether in words or illustrations, in a book published for teaching the art, would undoubtedly be an infringient of the copyright.
Recurring to the case before us, we observe that Charles Selden, by his books, explained and described a peculiar system of book-keeping, and illustrated his method by means of ruled lines and blank columns, with proper headings on a page, or on successive pages. Now, whilst no one has a right to print or publish his book, or any material part thereof, as a book intended to convey instruction in the art, any person may practice and use the art itself which he has described and illustrated therein. The use of the art is a totally different thing from a publication of the book explaining it. The copyright of a book on book-keeping cannot secure the exclusive right to make, sell, and use account-books prepared upon the plan set forth in such book. Whether the art might or might not have been patented is a question which is not before us. It was not patented, and is open and free to the use of the public. And, of course, in using the art, the ruled lines and headings of accounts must necessarily be used as incident to it.
The plausibility of the claim put forward of ideas produced by the peculiar nature of the art described in the books which have been made the subject of copyright. In describing the art, the illustrations and diagrams employed happen to correspond more closely than usual with the actual work performed by the operator who uses the art. Those illustrations and diagrams consist of ruled lines and headings of accounts; and it is similar ruled lines and headings of accounts which, in the application of the art, the book-keeper makes with his pen, or the stationer with his press; whilst in most other cases the diagrams and illustrations can only be represented in concrete forms of wood, metal, stone, or some other physical ibodiment.
But the principle is the same in all. The description of the art in a book, though entitled to the benefit of copyright, lays no foundation for an exclusive claim to the art itself. The object of the one is explanation; the object of the other is use. The former may be secured by copyright. The latter can only be secured, if it can be secured at all, by letters-patent.
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.
The decree of the Circuit Court must be reversed, and the cause rianded with instructions to dismiss the complainant's bill.
1. Baker v. Selden is probably the single most important precedent in copyright law concerning computers and computer software, and the precedent most often cited. Why?
2. Is this decision based on statutory construction? The Constitution? Something else?
In the 1976 Act, § 102(b) was added, which denies extension of copyright protection to any "idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied." How does this provision relate to Baker v. Selden?
3. The House Report (H.R. Rep. No. 94-1476, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. at 57 (1976)) states this of § 102(b):
Some concern has been expressed lest copyright in computer programs should extend protection to the methodology or processes adopted by the programmer, rather than merely to the "writings" expressing his ideas. Section 102(b) is intended, among other things, to make clear that the expression adopted by the programmer is the copyrightable element in a computer program, and that the actual processes or methods embodied in the program are not within the scope of the copyright law.
Show how this well-delineated road map provides sufficiently clear guidance to obviate the concern that generated it. After this statement of legislative intent, could courts have any difficulty in distinguishing expressive aspects of computer programs from the methodology, processes, and ideas underlying those expressions?
See, generally, on the ad hoc clarity of the distinction between idea and expression, Judge Learned Hand's last published opinion on copyright — Peter Pan Fabrics, Inc. v. Martin Weiner Corp., 274 F.2d 487, 489 (2d Cir. 1960).
4. "But there is a clear distinction between the book, as such, and the art which it is intended to illustrate." How would you apply that statement to a "book" that is a player-piano roll? A stack of cards for a Jacquard loom? A stack of cards for Babbage's machine? A deck of IBM cards? A programmed EPROM? Object code in a floppy disk?
5. The Court said: "Whether the art might or might not have been patented is a question which is not before us. It was not patented, and is open and free to the use of the public."
Could Selden have patented the Selden system? Would its business, rather than industrial, character have been an obstacle? See, e.g., In re Schrader, 22 F.3d 290 (Fed. Cir. 1994); In re Grams, 888 F.2d 835 (Fed. Cir. 1989); Hotel Security Checking Co. v. Lorraine Co., 160 F. 467 (2d Cir. 1908); Ex Parte Abraham, 1869 C.D. 59 (decision of Commissioner, affirming rejection by board of examiners-in-chief of patent application for article of manufacture: "[I]t is contrary to the spirit of the patent laws, as construed by the Office for many years, to grant patents for methods of book-keeping, to which the [claimed customs tax stamp and coupon] system in question is perfectly analogous."). But see State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Fin. Group, Inc., 149 F.3d 1368 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (upholding patentability of system for complying with IRC and IRS implementing regulations), rev'g 927 F. Supp. 502 (D. Mass. 1995); Paine, Webber, J. & C., Inc. v. Merrill Lynch, P., F. & S., Inc., 564 F. Supp. 1358 (D. Del. 1983) (upholding patentability of system for switching funds between accounts to maximize return).
The introduction to Selden's book, part of the record in the case, contains this statement by Selden: “The author, though always desirous of promoting the public good, does not in this instance, disclaim a hope of pecuniary reward; to this end he has taken steps to secure his right to some personal compensation, for what he thinks a valuable discovery. In addition to the copyrights of this little book, he has applied for a patent right to cover the forms of the publication, and prevent their indiscriminate use by the public.” Since Selden's widow sued Baker for copyright infringement, not patent infringement, we may assume that the principle stated in Ex Parte Abraham overbore Selden's hopes of pecuniary reward by means of aid from the patent office.
If Selden could not have obtained a patent, should not copyright law fill the void existing in our legal apparatus for promoting the progress of science and useful arts? Should our legal system be bound by a strait-jacket? Or should it not be a general charter for advancient of all new arts as they emerge? Would one require a man to wear the coat that fit him as a child?
Who should decide? Why? What if Congress persistently leaves the field unattended? What if, as some government intellectual-property officials have asserted, the matter is too complex for members of the Congress to understand or even be trusted with?
6. The Court says that "the very object of publishing a book on science on useful arts is to communicate to the world the useful knowledge which it contains." Is that so? Is the Court's statement an empirical observation? Normative?
7. Is there a distinction between the object of an author (or the assignee of his copyright) in publishing a book and the object of the copyright laws in granting a limited monopoly to those who publish books? Assume that the object of a computer-program author (or computer-program assignee) is personal advancement, including pecuniary advancement. Would there be some way to avoid the problem of fraud on the public without having any administrative examination of novelty (because it is too expensive and/or is infeasible for computer software)? What adjustments and compromises, if any, in our present system would permit that?
8. One of Selden's special forms is shown below. Selden's assignee sued Baker for marketing a substantially similar form.
Excerpt from O'Reilly v. Morse
United States Supreme Court
56 U.S. (15 How.) 62 (1853)
[longer version of this material in chapter 7]
Mr. Chief Justice Taney delivered the opinion of the Court.
In proceeding to pronounce judgment in this case, the court is sensible, not only of its importance, but of the difficulties in some of the questions which it presents for decision. The case was argued at the last term, and continued over by the court for the purpose of giving it a more deliberate examination. And since the continuance, we have re ceived from the counsel on both sides printed arguments, in which all of the questions raised on the trial have been fully and elaborately discussed.
The main dispute between the parties is upon the validity of this patent; and the decision upon it will dispose of the chief points in controversy in the other.
It is obvious that, for some years before Professor Morse made his invention, scientific men in different parts of Europe were earnestly engaged in the same pursuit. Electro-magnetism itself was a recent discovery, and opened to them a new and unexplored field for their labors, and minds of a high order were engaged in developing its power and the purposes to which it might be applied.
Professor Henry, of the Smithsonian Institute, states in his testimony that, prior to the winter of 1819-20, an electro-magnetic telegraph that is to say, a telegraph operating by the combined influence of electricity and magnetism, was not possible; that the scientific principles on which it is founded were until then unknown; and that the first fact of electro-magnetism was discovered by Oersted, of Copenhagen, in that winter, and was widely published, and the account everywhere received with interest.
It is unnecessary, however, to give in detail the discoveries enumerated by him either his own or those of others. But it appears from his testimony that very soon after the discovery made by Oersted, it was believed by men of science that this newly discovered power might be used to communicate intelligence to distant places. And before the year 1823, Ampere of Paris, one of the most successful cultivators of physical science, proposed to the French Academy a plan for that purpose. But his project was never reduced to practice. And the discovery made by Barlow, of the Royal Military Academy of Woolwich, England, in 1825, that the galvanic current greatly diminished in power as the distance increased, put at rest, for a time, all attempts to construct an electro-magnetic telegraph. Subsequent discoveries, however, revived the hope; and in the year 1832, when Professor Morse appears to have devoted himself to the subject, the conviction was general among men of science everywhere that the object could, and sooner or later would be, accomplished.
The great difficulty in their way was the fact that the galvanic current, however strong in the beginning, became gradually weaker as it advanced on the wire; and was not strong enough to produce a mechanical effect, after a certain distance had been traversed. But, encouraged by the discoveries which were made from time to time, and strong in the belief that an electro-magnetic telegraph was practicable, many eminent and scientific men in Europe, as well as in this country, became deeply engaged in endeavoring to surmount what appeared to be the chief obstacle to its success.
Early in the spring of 1837, Morse had invented his plan for combining two or more electric or galvanic circuits, with independent batteries for the purpose of overcoming the diminished force of electro-magnetism in long circuits, although it was not disclosed until afterwards. It required the highest order of mechanical skill to execute and adjust the nice and delicate work necessary to put the telegraph into operation, and the slightest error or defect would have been fatal to its success.
Regarding Professor Morse as the first and original inventor of the Telegraph, we come to the objections which have been made to the validity of his patent. We perceive no well-founded objection to the description which is given of the whole invention and its separate parts, nor to his right to a patent for the first seven inventions set forth in the specification of his claims. The difficulty arises on the eighth. It is in the following words:
Eighth. I do not propose to limit myself to the specific machinery or parts of machinery described in the foregoing specification and claims; the essence of my invention being the use of the motive power of the electric or galvanic current, which I call electro-magnetism, however developed for marking or printing intelligible characters, signs, or letters, at any distances, being a new application of that power of which I claim to be the first inventor or discoverer.
It is impossible to misunderstand the extent of this claim. He claims the exclusive right to every improvement where the motive power is the electric or galvanic current, and the result is the marking or printing intelligible characters, signs, or letters at a distance.
If this claim can be maintained, it matters not by what process or machinery the result is accomplished. For aught that we now know some future inventor, in the onward march of science, may discover a mode of writing or printing at a distance by means of the electric or galvanic current, without using any part of the process or combination set forth in the plaintiff's specification. His invention may be less complicated – less liable to get out of order – less expensive in construction, and in its operation. But yet if it is covered by this patent the inventor could not use it, nor the public have the benefit of it without the permission of this patentee.
Nor is this all, while he shuts the door against inventions of other persons, the patentee would be able to avail himself of new discoveries in the properties and powers of electro-magnetism which scientific men might bring to light. For he says he does not confine his claim to the machinery or parts of machinery, which he specifies; but claims for himself a monopoly in its use, however developed, for the purpose of printing at a distance. New discoveries in physical science may enable him to combine it with new agents and new elements, and by that means attain the object in a manner superior to the present process and altogether different from it. And if he can secure the exclusive use by his present patent he may vary it with every new discovery and development of the science, and need place no description of the new manner, process, or machinery, upon the records of the patent office. And when his patent expires, the public must apply to him to learn what it is. In fine, he claims an exclusive right to use a manner and process which he has not described and indeed had not invented, and therefore could not describe when he obtained his patent. The court is of opinion that the claim is too broad, and not warranted by law.
No one, we suppose will maintain that Fulton could have taken out a patent for his invention of propelling vessels by steam, describing the process and machinery he used, and claimed under it the exclusive right to use the motive power of steam, however developed, for the purpose of propelling vessels. It can hardly be supposed that under such a patent he could have prevented the use of the improved machinery which science has since introduced; although the motive power is steam, and the result is the propulsion of vessels. Neither could the man who first discovered that steam might, by a proper arrangement of machinery, be used as a motive power to grind corn or spin cotton, claim the right to the exclusive use of steam as a motive power for the purpose of producing such effects.
Professor Morse has not discovered that the electric or galvanic current will always print at a distance, no matter what may be the form of the machinery or mechanical contrivances through which it passes. You may use electro-magnetism as a motive power, and yet not produce the described effect, that is, print at a distance intelligible marks or signs. To produce that effect, it must be combined with, and passed through, and operate upon, certain complicated and delicate machinery, adjusted and arranged upon philosophical principles, and prepared by the highest mechanical skill. And it is the high praise of Professor Morse, that he has been able, by a new combination of known powers, of which electro-magnetism is one, to discover a method by which intelligible marks or signs may be printed at a distance. And for the method or process thus discovered, he is entitled to a patent. But he has not discovered that the electro-magnetic current, used as motive power, in any other method, and with any other combination, will do as well.
The provisions of the acts of Congress in relation to patents may be summed up in a few words: Whoever discovers that a certain useful result will be produced, in any art, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, by the use of certain means, is entitled to a patent for it; provided he specifies the means he uses in a manner so full and exact, that any one skilled in the science to which it appertains, can, by using the means he specifies, without any addition to, or subtraction from them, produce precisely the result he describes. And if this cannot be done by the means he describes, the patent is void. And if it can be done, then the patent confers on him the exclusive right to use the means he specifies to produce the result or effect he describes, and nothing more. And it makes no difference, in this respect, whether the effect is produced by chemical agency or combination; or by the application of discoveries or principles in natural philosophy known or unknown before his invention; or by machinery act ing altogether upon mechanical principles. In either case he must describe the manner and process as above mentioned, and the end it accomplishes. And any one may lawfully accomplish the same end without infringing the patent, if he uses means substantially different from those described.
Indeed, if the eighth claim of the patentee can be maintained, there was no necessity for any specification, further than to say that he had discovered that, by using the motive power of electro-magnetism, he could print intelligible characters at any distance. We presume it will be admitted on all hands, that no patent could have issued on such a specification. Yet this claim can derive no aid from the specification filed. It is outside of it, and the patentee claims beyond it. And if it stands, it must stand simply on the ground that the broad terms above-mentioned were a sufficient description, and entitled him to a patent in terms equally broad. In our judgment the act of Congress cannot be so construed.
Mr. Justice Wayne, Mr. Justice Nelson, and Mr. Justice Grier, dissent from the judgment of the court. Mr. Justice Grier.
I cannot concur with the opinion of the majority in the construction of the eighth claim of complainant's first patent, as finally amended. The first claim, as explanatory of all that follow, should be read in connection with the eighth. They are as follows:
1st. Having thus fully described my invention, I wish it to be understood, that I do not claim the use of the galvanic current or currents of electricity, for the purpose of telegraphic communications generally; but what I specially claim as my invention and improvement, is making use of the motive power of magnetism, when developed by the action of such current or currents substantially as set forth in the foregoing description of the first principal part of my invention, as means of operating or giving motion to machinery which may be used to imprint signals upon paper or other suitable material, or to produce sounds in any desired manner for the purpose of telegraphic communication at any distances.
8th. I do not propose to limit myself to the specific machinery or parts of machinery described in the foregoing specification and claims, the essence of my invention being the use of the motive power of the electric or galvanic current, which I call electro-magnetism, however developed, for marking or printing intelligible characters, signs, or letters, at any distances, being a new application of that power, of which I claim to be the first inventor or discoverer.
The objection to this claim is that it is too broad, because the inventor does not confine himself to specific machinery or parts of machinery, as described in his patent, but claims that the essence of his invention consists in the application of electro-magnetism as a motive power, however developed, for printing charac ters at a distance. This being a new application of that element or power, of which the patentee claims to be the first inventor or discoverer.
In order to test the value of this objection, as applied to the present case, and escape any confusion of ideas too often arising from the use of ill-defined terms and propositions, let us examine, 1st. What may be patented; or what forms a proper subject of protection, under the Constitution and acts of Congress, relative to this subject.
2d. What is the nature of the invention now under consideration? Is it a mere machine, and subject to the rules which affect a combination of mechanical devices to effect a particular purpose.
3d. Is the claim true, in fact? And if true, how can it be too broad, in any legal sense of the term, as heretofore used, either in the acts of Congress, or in judicial decisions?
1st. A new and useful art or a new and useful improvement on any known art is as much entitled to the protection of the law as a machine or manufacture. The English patent acts are confined to "manufactures" in terms; but the courts have construed them to cover and protect arts as well as machines; yet without using the term art. Here we are not required to make any latitudinous construction of our statute for the sake of equity or policy; and surely we have no right, even if we had the disposition, to curtail or narrow its liberal policy by astute or fanciful construction.
It is not easy to give a precise definition of what is meant by the term "art," as used in the acts of Congress some, if not all, the traits which distinguish an art from the other legitimate subjects of a patent, are stated with clearness and accuracy by Mr. Curtis, in his Treatise on Patents. "The term art, applies," says he, "to all those cases where the application of a principle is the most important part of the invention, and where the machinery, apparatus, or other means, by which the principle is applied, are incidental only and not of the essence of his invention. It applies also to all those cases where the result, effect, or manufactured article is old, but the invention consists in a new process or method of producing such result, effect, or manufacture."
A machine, though it may be composed of many parts, instruments, or devices combined together, still conveys the idea of unity. It may be said to be invented, but the term "discovery" could not well be predicated of it. An art may employ many different machines, devices, processes, and manipulations, to produce some useful result. In a previously known art a man may discover some new process, or new application of a known principle, element, or power of nature, to the advancement of the art, and will be entitled to a patent for the same, as "an improvement in the art," or he may invent a machine to perform a given function, and then he will be entitled to a patent only for his machine.
That improvements in the arts, which consist in the new application of some known element, power, or physical law, and not in any particular machine or combination of machinery, have been frequently the subject of patents both in England and in this country, the cases in our books most amply demonstrate. The great art of printing, which has changed the face of human society and civilization, consisted in nothing but a new application of principles known to the world for thousands of years. No one could say it consisted in the type or the press, or in any other machine or device used in performing some particular function, more than in the hands which picked the types or worked the press. Yet if the inventor of printing [Gutenberg] had, under this narrow construction of our patent law, claimed his art as something distinct from his machinery, the doctrine now advanced, would have declared it unpatentable to its full extent as an art, and that the inventor could be protected in nothing but his first rough types and ill-contrived press.
He who first discovers that an element or law of nature can be made operative for the production of some valuable result, some new art, or the improvement of some known art; who has devised the machinery or process to make it operative, and introduced it in a practical form to the knowledge of mankind, is a discoverer and inventor of the highest class. The discovery of a new application of a known element or agent may require more labor, expense, persevering industry, and ingenuity than the inventor of any machine. Sometimes, it is true, it may be the result of a happy thought or conception, without the labor of an experiment, as in the case of the improvement in the art of casting chilled rollers, already alluded to. In many cases, it is the result of numerous experiments; not the consequence of any reasoning a priori, but wholly empirical; as the discovery that a certain degree of heat, when applied to the usual processes for curing India rubber, produced a substance with new and valuable qualities.
The mere discovery of a new element, or law, or principle of nature, without any valuable application of it to the arts, is not the subject of a patent. But he who takes this new element or power, as yet useless, from the laboratory of the philosopher, and makes it the servant of man; who applies it to the perfecting of a new and useful art, or to the improvement of one already known, is the benefactor to whom the patent law tenders its protection. The devices and machines used in the exercise of it may or may not be new; yet, by the doctrine against which I contend, he cannot patent then, because they were known and used before. Or, if he can, it is only in their new application and combination in perfecting the new art. In order words, he may patent the new application of the mechanical devices, but not the new application of the operative elements which is the essential agent in the invention. He may patent his combination of the machinery, but not his art.
When a new and hitherto unknown product or result, beneficial to mankind, is effected by a new application of any element of nature, and by means of machines and devices, whether new or old, it cannot be denied that such invention or discovery is entitled to the denomination of a "new and useful art." The statute gives the inventor of an art a monopoly in the exercise of it as fully as it does to the inventor of a mere machine. And any person who exercise such new art without the license of the inventor is an infringer of his patent, and of the franchise granted to him by the law as a reward for his labor and ingenuity in perfecting it. A construction of the law which protects such an inventor, in nothing but the new invented machines or parts of machinery used in the exercise of his art, and refuses it to the exercise of the art itself, annuls the patent law. If the law gives a franchise or monopoly to the inventor of an art as fully as to the inventor of a machine, why shall its protection not be coextensive with the invention in one case as well as in the other? To look at an art as nothing but a combination of machinery, and give it protection only as such, against the use of the same or similar devices or mechanical equivalents, is to refuse it protection as an art. It ignores the distinction between an art and a machine; it overlooks the clear letter and spirit of the statute; and leads to inextricable difficulties. It is viewing a statute or a monument through a microscope.
The reason given for thus confining the franchise of the inventor of an art to his machines and parts of machinery is, that it would retard the progress of improvement, if those who can devise better machines or devices, differing in mechanical principle from those of the first inventor of the art, or, in other words, who can devise an improvement in it, should not be allowed to pirate it.
To say that a patentee, who claims the art of writing at a distance by means of electro-magnetism, necessarily claims all future improvements in the art, is to misconstrue it, or draws a consequence from it not fairly to be inferred from its language. An improvement in a known art is as much the subject of a patent as the art itself; so, also, is an improvement on a known machine. Yet, if the original machine be patented, the patentee of an improvement will not have a right to use the original. This doctrine has not been found to retard the progress of invention in the case of machines; and I can see no reason why a contrary one should be applied to an art.
The claim of the patentee is, that he may be protected in the exercise of his art as against persons who may improve or change some of the processes or machines necessary in its exercise. The court, by deciding that this claim is too broad, virtually decides that such an inventor of an improvement may pirate the art he improves, because it is contrary to public policy to restrain the progress of invention. Or, in other words, it may be said that it is the policy of the courts to refuse that protection to an art which it affords to a machine, which it is the policy of the Constitution and the laws to grant.
Let us now consider what is the nature of the invention now under consideration.
Is it not true, as set forth in this eighth claim of the specification, that the patentee was the first inventor or discoverer of the use or application of electro-magnetism to print and record intelligible charac ters or letters? It is the very ground on which the court agree in confirming his patent. Now the patent law requires an inventor, as a condition precedent to obtaining a patent, to deliver a written description of his invention or discovery, and to particularly specify what he claims to be his own invention or discovery. If he has truly stated the principle, nature and extent of his art or invention, how can the court say it is too broad, and impugn the validity of his patent for doing what the law requires as a condition for obtaining it? And if it is only in case of a machine that the law requires the inventor to specify what he claims as his own invention and discovery, and to distinguish what is new from what is old, then this eighth claim is superfluous and cannot affect the validity of his patent, provided his art is new and useful, and the machines and devices claimed separately, are of his own invention. If it be in the use of the words "however developed" that the claim is to be adjudged too broad, then it follows that a person using any other process for the purpose of developing the agent or element of electro-magnetism, than the common one now in use, and described in the patent, may pirate the whole art patented.
But if it be adjudged that the claim is too broad, because the inventor claims the application of this element to his new art, then his patent is to be invalidated for claiming his whole invention, and nothing more. If the result of this application be a new and useful art, and if the essence of his invention consists in compelling this hitherto useless element to record letters and words, at any distance and in many places at the same moment, how can it be said that the claim is for a principle or an abstraction? What is meant by a claim being too broad? The patent law and judicial decisions may be searched in vain for a provision or decision that a patent may be impugned for claiming no more than the patentee invented or discovered. It is only when he claims something before known and used, some thing as new which is not new, either by mistake or intentionally, that his patent is affected.
Assuming it to be true, then, for the purpose of the argument, that the new application of the power of electro-magnetism to the art of telegraphing or printing characters at a distance, is not the subject of a patent, because it is patenting a principle; yet as it is also true, that Morse was the first who made this application successfully, as set forth in this eighth claim, I am unable to comprehend how, in the words of the statute, we can adjudge "that he has failed to sustain his action, on the ground that his specification or claim embraces more than that of which he was the first inventor."
1. The importance of O'Reilly v. Morse, the Telegraph Patent Case, to the patent law concerning computer software related inventions cannot be overstated. It is to patents as Baker v. Selden is to copyrights. Why do you suppose that Baker and Morse are so important?
2. Morse’s “plan for combining two or more electric or galvanic circuits, with independent batteries for the purpose of overcoming the diminished force of electromagnetism in long circuits” is illustrated in the accompanying figure at the right. Consider it with the figure at the left, illustrating decrease in signal voltage (dark curve) and noise (red) graphed against distance. Morse inserted the relays (or “repeaters” as the opinion terms them) at intervals sufficiently short (say, every 20 miles) that the signal was restored regularly to substantially its initial level before the noise could swamp it out.
The resulting graph of the signal would then be as if the left-most columns of the graph were replicated side by side many times – something like what is shown at right, keeping the amplitude from ever falling to zero.
The figure illustrates the great question, "What did Morse invent?" Did he invent the depicted apparatus and no more? Did he invent the more generic and abstract formulation of claim 8 — the use of electromagnetism, however developed, for marking intelligible characters at any distance? How does a court properly delimit the scope of an inventor's patent, short of the frontiers of the prior art? This is a recurrent question in patent law, particularly in respect of algorithms and similar abstractions. (For example, in a later section of these materials — the In re Alappat decision — the en banc Federal Circuit divides over whether Alappat, who disclosed a procedure for smoothing out the appearance of jagged lines on an oscilloscope display, should receive a patent grant extending to the use of the procedure in laser printers or other perhaps as yet unknown non-oscilloscope applications. In another part of these materials, the Supreme Court holds that Benson, who disclosed a method of converting binary coded decimal information to binary information, for use in telephone switching systems, is not entitled to patent protection for such an untaught and unenabled use of the method as Shepardizing cases or running trains.)
3. Justice Grier, dissenting in Morse, asks, "What is meant by a claim [specifically, Morse's claim 8] being too broad?" What's the answer? Grier said, "It is only when he claims something before known and used, something as new which is not new, either by mistake or intentionally." That is, only if the claim encroaches beyond the frontiers of the prior art. Do you agree with Grier?
Excerpt From Gottschalk v. Benson
United States Supreme Court
409 U.S. 63 (1972)
[longer version of this material in chapter 8]
Mr. Justice Douglas delivered the opinion of the Court.
The patent sought is on a method of programming a general-purpose digital computer to convert signals from binary-coded decimal (BCD) form into pure binary form. A procedure for solving a given type of mathematical problem is known as an "algorithm." The procedures set forth in the present claims are of that kind; that is to say, they are a generalized formulation for programs to solve mathematical problems of converting one form of numerical representation to another. From the generic formulation, programs may be developed as specific applications.
The Court stated in Mackay Co. v. Radio Corp., 306 U.S. 86, that "while a scientific truth, or the mathematical expression of it, is not patentable invention, a novel and useful structure created with the aid of knowledge of scientific truth may be." That statement followed the long-standing rule that "an idea of itself is not patentable." Rubber-Tip Pencil Co. v Howard, 20 Wall. (87 U.S.) 498. "A principle, in the abstract, is a fundamental truth, an original cause, a motive; these cannot be patented, as no one can claim in either of them an exclusive right." Le Roy v. Tatham, 14 How. (55 U.S.) 156.
Phenomena of nature, though just discovered, mental processes, and abstract intellectual concepts are not patentable, as they are the basic tools of scientific and technological work. As we stated in Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Co., 333 U.S. 127:
He who discovers a hitherto unknown phenomenon of nature has no claim to a monopoly of it which the law recognizes. If there is to be invention from such a discovery, it must come from the application of the law of nature to a new and useful end.
We dealt there with a "product" claim, while the present case deals with a "process" claim. But we think the same principle applies.
Here the "process" claim is so abstract and sweeping as to cover both known and unknown uses of the [claimed invention]. The end use may (1) vary from the operation of a train to verification of drivers' licenses to researching the law books for precedents, and (2) be performed through any existing machinery or future-devised machinery or without any apparatus.
In O'Reilly v. Morse, 15 How. (56 U.S.) 62, Morse was allowed a patent for a process of using electromagnetism to produce distinguishable signs for telegraphy. But the Court denied the eighth claim in which Morse claimed the use of electromagnetism, "however developed, for marking or printing intelligible characters, signs, or letters, at any distances." The Court in disallowing that claim said:
If this claim can be maintained, it matters not by what process or machinery the result is accomplished. For aught that we now know, some future inventor, in the onward march of science, may discover a mode of writing or printing at a distance by means of the electric or galvanic current, without using any part of the process or combination set forth in the plaintiff's specification. His invention may be less complicated — less liable to get out of order — less expensive in construction, and in its operation. But yet, if it is covered by this patent, the inventor could not use it, nor the public have the benefit of it, without the permission of this patentee.
One may not patent an idea. But in practical effect that would be the result if the formula for converting BCD numerals to pure binary numerals were patented in this case. The mathematical formula involved here has no substantial practical application except in connection with a digital computer, which means that if the judgment below is affirmed, the patent would wholly preempt the mathematical formula and in practical effect would be a patent on the algorithm itself.
It may be that the patent laws should be extended to cover these programs, a policy matter to which we are not competent to speak. But if these programs are to be patentable, considerable problems are raised which only committees of Congress can manage, for broad powers of investigation are needed, including hearings which canvass the wide variety of views which those operating in this fie1d entertain. The technological problems indicate to us that considered action by the Congress is needed.
1. What's wrong with patents on ideas? "[A]Abstract intellectual concepts [ideas] are not patentable, as they are the basic tools of scientific and technological work." What does that mean? Is a sorting algorithm or E=mc2 really like a screwdriver or a plumb bob?
2. Should patent protection extend to an idea about accounting for the inventory of a retail establishment? Selling products via the Internet? Should there be patent protection only when that idea is expressed in a system using hardware? In a system using a computer program? What if the idea is concerned with a method of complying with federal income tax regulations? See Claus D. Melarti, State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group, Inc.: Ought the Mathematical Algorithm and Business Method Exceptions Return to Business as Usual? 6 J. Intell. Prop. L. 359 (1999)[suggesting that patent claims for methods of doing business be subjected to strict scrutiny]. See also 10 Fordham Intell. Prop. Media & Ent. L.J., Issue No. 1 (1999), which is devoted to a Symposium on patenting methods of doing business, held at The George Washington Law School in March 1999.
For an analysis of the effects of the scope of patent protection on the development of various industries see, Robert P. Merges & Richard R. Nelson, On The Complex Economics of Patent Scope, 90 Colum. L. Rev. 839, and Michael A. Heller & Rebecca A. Eisenberg, Can Patents Deter Innovation? 280 Science 698 (1998)[arguing that broad patent protection results in fragmented rights that have deterred bio-medical innovation.
3. What if employers of those who devise algorithms don't want to spend money on paying their salaries as a purely altruistic venture? What if an employer's idea of recouping that salary is to charge an infinite or extremely high royalty? See 35 U.S.C. § 271(d)(4). How does that impact the public interest, if at all?
4. Does the Constitution impose any obstacle to patents on abstract intellectual concepts? Can Congress grant patent-like legal protection on abstract ideas by legislating under the Commerce Clause instead of the Patent Clause? Under the Necessary and Proper Clause? Is there a Dormant Patent Clause, akin to the Dormant Commerce Clause?
5. Consider an entirely software-implemented business innovation ("ESBI") in the light of copyright law as represented by Baker v. Selden and patent law as represented by Benson. Consider also the following logical connectives: AND, OR, NAND (not-AND), NOR (not-OR), and XOR (exclusive OR). For an ideal intellectual property law regime, decide which connective should be placed in the following statement at position X: "Patent protection X copyright protection should cover ESBI."
Is any innovation ever entirely software-implemented?
Should we count the computer, memory device, or electrical signal as negativing "entirely software-implemented"?
Excerpts from Feist Pubs., Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co.
United States Supreme Court
499 U.S. 340 (1991)
Justice O’Connor delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case requires us to clarify the extent of copyright protection available to telephone directory white pages.
I. Factual Background
Rural Telephone Service Company is a certified public utility that provides telephone service to several communities in northwest Kansas. Rural publishes a typical telephone directory, consisting of white pages and yellow pages. The white pages list in alphabetical order the names of Rural’s subscribers, together with their towns and telephone numbers. The yellow pages list Rural’s business subscribers alphabetically by category and feature classified advertisements of various sizes. Rural distributes its directory free of charge to its subscribers, but earns revenue by selling yellow pages advertisements.
Feist Publications, Inc., is a publishing company that specializes in area-wide telephone directories. Unlike a typical directory, which covers only a particular calling area, Feist’s area-wide directories cover a much larger geographical range, reducing the need to call directory assistance or consult multiple directories. The Feist directory that is the subject of this litigation covers 11 different telephone service areas in 15 counties and contains 46,878 white pages listings — compared to Rural’s approximately 7,700 listings. Like Rural’s directory, Feist’s is distributed free of charge and includes both white pages and yellow pages. Feist and Rural compete vigorously for yellow pages advertising.
As the sole provider of telephone service in its service area, Rural obtains subscriber information quite easily. Persons desiring telephone service must apply to Rural and provide their names and addresses; Rural then assigns them a telephone number. Feist is not a telephone company, let alone one with monopoly status, and therefore lacks independent access to any subscriber information. To obtain white pages listings for its area-wide directory, Feist approached each of the 11 telephone companies operating in northwest Kansas and offered to pay for the right to use its white pages listings.
Only Rural refused to license its listings to Feist. Rural’s refusal created a problem for Feist, as omitting these listings would have left a gaping hole in its area-wide directory, rendering it less attractive to potential yellow pages advertisers. In a decision subsequent to that which we review here, the district court determined that this was precisely the reason Rural refused to license its listings. The refusal was motivated by an unlawful purpose “to extend its monopoly in telephone service to a monopoly in yellow pages advertising.”
Unable to license Rural’s white pages listings, Feist used them without Rural’s consent. Notwithstanding additions, 1,309 of the 46,878 listings in Feist’s 1983 directory were identical to listings in Rural’s 1982-1983 white pages. Four of these were fictitious listings that Rural had inserted into its directory to detect copying.
Rural sued for copyright infringement, taking the position that Feist, in compiling its own directory, could not use the information contained in Rural’s white pages. Rural asserted that Feist’s employees were obliged to travel door-to-door or conduct a telephone survey to discover the same information for themselves. Feist responded that such efforts were economically impractical and, in any event, unnecessary because the information copied was beyond the scope of copyright protection. The District Court granted summary judgment to Rural, explaining that “[c]ourts have consistently held that telephone directories are copyrightable” and citing a string of lower court decisions. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed “for substantially the reasons given by the district court.” We granted certiorari, to determine whether the copyright in Rural’s directory protects the names, towns, and telephone numbers copied by Feist.
II. Applicable Principles of Copyright Law
A. Copyrightability of Factual Compilations
This case concerns the interaction of two well-established propositions. The first is that facts are not copyrightable; the other, that compilations of facts generally are. Each of these propositions possesses an impeccable pedigree. That there can be no valid copyright in facts is universally understood. The most fundamental axiom of copyright law is that “[n]o author may copyright his ideas or the facts he narrates.” Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539 (1985). Rural wisely concedes this point, noting in its brief that “[f]acts and discoveries, of course, are not themselves subject to copyright protection.” At the same time, however, it is beyond dispute that compilations of facts are within the subject matter of copyright. Compilations were expressly mentioned in the Copyright Act of 1909, and again in the Copyright Act of 1976.
There is an undeniable tension between these two propositions. Many compilations consist of nothing but raw data — i.e., wholly factual information not accompanied by any original written expression. On what basis may one claim a copyright in such a work? Common sense tells us that 100 uncopyrightable facts do not magically change their status when gathered together in one place. Yet copyright law seems to contemplate that compilations that consist exclusively of facts are potentially within its scope.
The key to resolving the tension lies in understanding why facts are not copyrightable. The sine qua non of copyright is originality. To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be original to the author. “Original,” as the term is used in copyright, means only that the work was independently created by the author (as opposed to copied from other works), and that it possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity. To be sure, the requisite level of creativity is extremely low; even a slight amount will suffice. The vast majority of works make the grade quite easily, as they possess some creative spark, “no matter how crude, humble or obvious” it might be.
Originality does not signify novelty; a work may be original even though it closely resembles other works so long as the similarity is fortuitous, not the result of copying. To illustrate, assume that two poets, each ignorant of the other, compose identical poems. Neither work is novel, yet both are original and, hence, copyrightable.
Originality is a constitutional requirement. The source of Congress’ power to enact copyright laws is Art. I, § 8, cl. 8, of the Constitution, which authorizes Congress to “secur[e] for limited Times to Authors...the exclusive Right to their respective Writings.” In two decisions from the late 19th Century — The Trade-Mark Cases and Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony — this Court defined the crucial terms “authors” and “writings.” In so doing, the Court made it unmistakably clear that these terms presuppose a degree of originality.
Originality requires independent creation plus a modicum of creativity. The originality requirement articulated in The Trade-Mark Cases and Burrow-Giles remains the touchstone of copyright protection today. It is the very “premise of copyright law.” Leading scholars agree on this point. It is this bedrock principle of copyright that mandates the law’s seemingly disparate treatment of facts and factual compilations. “No one may claim originality as to facts.” This is because facts do not owe their origin to an act of authorship. The distinction is one between creation and discovery: the first person to find and report a particular fact has not created the fact; he or she has merely discovered its existence. To borrow from Burrow-Giles, one who discovers a fact is not its “maker” or “originator.” “The discoverer merely finds and records.”
Factual compilations, on the other hand, may possess the requisite originality. The compilation author typically chooses which facts to include, in what order to place them, and how to arrange the collected data so that they may be used effectively by readers. These choices as to selection and arrangement, so long as they are made independently by the compiler and entail a minimal degree of creativity, are sufficiently original that Congress may protect such compilations through the copyright laws. Thus, even a directory that contains absolutely no protectible written expression, only facts, meets the constitutional minimum for copyright protection if it features an original selection or arrangement.
This protection is subject to an important limitation. The mere fact that a work is copyrighted does not mean that every element of the work may be protected. Originality remains the sine qua non of copyright; accordingly, copyright protection may extend only to those components of a work that are original to the author. Thus, if the compilation author clothes facts with an original collocation of words, he or she may be able to claim a copyright in this written expression. Others may copy the underlying facts from the publication, but not the precise words used to present them.Where the compilation author adds no written expression but rather lets the facts speak for themselves, the expressive element is more elusive. The only conceivable expression is the manner in which the compiler has selected and arranged the facts. Thus, if the selection and arrangement are original, these elements of the work are eligible for copyright protection. No matter how original the format, however, the facts themselves do not become original through association.
This inevitably means that the copyright in a factual compilation is thin. Notwithstanding a valid copyright, a subsequent compiler remains free to use the facts contained in another’s publication to aid in preparing a competing work, so long as the competing work does not feature the same selection and arrangement.
It may seem unfair that much of the fruit of the compiler’s labor may be used by others without compensation. As applied to a factual compilation, assuming the absence of original written expression, only the compiler’s selection and arrangement may be protected; the raw facts may be copied at will. This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art.
This, then, resolves the doctrinal tension: Copyright treats facts and factual compilations in a wholly consistent manner. Facts, whether alone or as part of a compilation, are not original and therefore may not be copyrighted. A factual compilation is eligible for copyright if it features an original selection or arrangement of facts, but the copyright is limited to the particular selection or arrangement. In no event may copyright extend to the facts themselves.
B. “Sweat of the Brow” Doctrine
As we have explained, originality is a constitutionally mandated prerequisite for copyright protection. The Court’s decisions announcing this rule predate the Copyright Act of 1909, but ambiguous language in the 1909 Act caused some lower courts temporarily to lose sight of this requirement. Making matters worse, these courts developed a new theory to justify the protection of factual compilations. Known alternatively as “sweat of the brow” or “industrious collection,” the underlying notion was that copyright was a reward for the hard work that went into compiling facts.
The “sweat of the brow” doctrine had numerous flaws, the most glaring being that it extended copyright protection in a compilation beyond selection and arrangement — the compiler’s original contributions — to the facts themselves. Under the doctrine, the only defense to infringement was independent creation. A subsequent compiler was “not entitled to take one word of information previously published,” but rather had to “independently wor[k] out the matter for himself, so as to arrive at the same result from the same common sources of information.” “Sweat of the brow” courts thereby eschewed the most fundamental axiom of copyright law — that no one may copyright facts or ideas. Without a doubt, the “sweat of the brow” doctrine flouted basic copyright principles.
C. 1976 Act
Not every selection, coordination, or arrangement will pass muster under the 1976 Copyright Act. This is plain from the statute. It states that, to merit protection, the facts must be selected, coordinated, or arranged “in such a way” as to render the work as a whole original. This implies that some “ways” will trigger copyright, but that others will not. Otherwise, the phrase “in such a way” is meaningless and Congress should have defined “compilation” simply as “a work formed by the collection and assembly of preexisting materials or data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged.” That Congress did not do so is dispositive. In accordance with “the established principle that a court should give effect, if possible, to every clause and word of a statute,” we conclude that the statute envisions that there will be some fact-based works in which the selection, coordination, and arrangement are not sufficiently original to trigger copyright protection.
As discussed earlier, however, the originality requirement is not particularly stringent. A compiler may settle upon a selection or arrangement that others have used; novelty is not required. Originality requires only that the author make the selection or arrangement independently (i.e., without copying that selection or arrangement from another work), and that it display some minimal level of creativity. Presumably, the vast majority of compilations will pass this test, but not all will. There remains a narrow category of works in which the creative spark is utterly lacking or so trivial as to be virtually nonexistent. Such works are incapable of sustaining a valid copyright.
Even if a work qualifies as a copyrightable compilation, it receives only limited protection. This is the point of § 103 of the Act. Section 103 explains that “[t]he subject matter of copyright...includes compilations,” but that copyright protects only the author’s original contributions — not the facts or information conveyed: “The copyright in a compilation...extends only to the material contributed by the author of such work, as distinguished from the preexisting material employed in the work, and does not imply any exclusive right in the preexisting material.”
In summary, the 1976 revisions to the Copyright Act leave no doubt that originality, not “sweat of the brow,” is the touchstone of copyright protection in directories and other fact-based works.
III. Whether Feist Infringed Rural's Copyright
There is no doubt that Feist took from the white pages of Rural’s directory a substantial amount of factual information. At a minimum, Feist copied the names, towns, and telephone numbers of 1,309 of Rural’s subscribers. Not all copying, however, is copyright infringement. The question is did Feist, by taking 1,309 names, towns, and telephone numbers from Rural’s white pages, copy anything that was “original” to Rural? Certainly, the raw data does not satisfy the originality requirement. Rural may have been the first to discover and report the names, towns, and telephone numbers of its subscribers, but this data does not “owe its origin” to Rural. Rather, these bits of information are uncopyrightable facts; they existed before Rural reported them and would have continued to exist if Rural had never published a telephone directory. The originality requirement “rule[s] out protecting...names, addresses, and telephone numbers of which the plaintiff by no stretch of the imagination could be called the author.”
The question that remains is whether Rural selected, coordinated, or arranged these uncopyrightable facts in an original way. As mentioned, originality is not a stringent standard; it does not require that facts be presented in an innovative or surprising way. It is equally true, however, that the selection and arrangement of facts cannot be so mechanical or routine as to require no creativity whatsoever. The standard of originality is low, but it does exist. An author who claims infringement must prove “the existence of...intellectual production, of thought, and conception.”
The selection, coordination, and arrangement of Rural’s white pages do not satisfy the minimum constitutional standards for copyright protection. As mentioned at the outset, Rural’s white pages are entirely typical. Persons desiring telephone service in Rural’s service area fill out an application and Rural issues them a telephone number. In preparing its white pages, Rural simply takes the data provided by its subscribers and lists it alphabetically by surname. The end product is a garden-variety white pages directory, devoid of even the slightest trace of creativity.
Rural’s selection of listings could not be more obvious: it publishes the most basic information — name, town, and telephone number — about each person who applies to it for telephone service. This is “selection” of a sort, but it lacks the modicum of creativity necessary to transform mere selection into copyrightable expression. Rural expended sufficient effort to make the white pages directory useful, but insufficient creativity to make it original.
Nor can Rural claim originality in its coordination and arrangement of facts. The white pages do nothing more than list Rural’s subscribers in alphabetical order. This arrangement may, technically speaking, owe its origin to Rural; no one disputes that Rural undertook the task of alphabetizing the names itself.
But there is nothing remotely creative about arranging names alphabetically in a white pages directory. It is an age-old practice, firmly rooted in tradition and so commonplace that it has come to be expected as a matter of course. It is not only unoriginal, it is practically inevitable. This time-honored tradition does not possess the minimal creative spark required by the Copyright Act and the Constitution.
We conclude that the names, towns, and telephone numbers copied by Feist were not original to Rural and therefore were not protected by the copyright in Rural’s combined white and yellow pages directory. As a constitutional matter, copyright protects only those constituent elements of a work that possess more than a de minimis quantum of creativity. Rural’s white pages, limited to basic subscriber information and arranged alphabetically, fall short of the mark.
Because Rural’s white pages lack the requisite originality, Feist’s use of the listings cannot constitute infringement. This decision should not be construed as demeaning Rural’s efforts in compiling its directory, but rather as making clear that copyright rewards originality, not effort. As this Court noted more than a century ago, “great praise may be due to the plaintiffs for their industry and enterprise in publishing this paper, yet the law does not contemplate their being rewarded in this way.” Baker v. Selden.
1. A longer version of Feist is found in Chapter 2. A short version is presented here, because the Feist decision is probably the single most important software–impacting copyright decision of the Supreme Court since Baker v. Selden. What are some of its implications for databases, screen displays, and computer programs?
2. The Supreme Court has yet to address directly the copyright status of databases, screen displays, computer programs, or computer programming languages.
3. Feist tells us that compilations of fact get a thin copyright. What’s the difference between a thin copyright and a fat copyright? Which does software get? Does it matter what kind or aspect of software is involved? If so, how?
Link to section B of chapter 1
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