Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Servs. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 18 U.S.P.Q.2d (BNA) 1275 (1991) (full-text).
Factual Background Edit
Rural Telephone Service was the sole provider of telephone service in its service area. As a telephone company operating in Kansas, it was required by the State of Kansas to collect the [telephone]] listing information and publish it in an annual directory. The white pages of Rural Telephone Service's directory consisted of a simple alphabetical list of the names of Rural's subscribers, their towns, and their telephone numbers.
Feist Publications, a publishing company making area-wide telephone directories, paid for the rights to use listings from telephone companies in 11 different service areas near Rural's service area. Rural Telephone Service would not allow Feist to pay to use its listings.
Because Rural would not allow Feist to license its listings, Feist used them without consent. Feist removed several thousand geographically irrelevant listings, then verified and attempted to obtain additional information on the 4,935 remaining listings for use in its directory. Most of Rural's listings did not contain street addresses. Ultimately, most of Feist's listings included the individuals' names, street addresses, towns, and telephone numbers. However, 1,309 of the 46,878 listings in Feist's directory were used directly from Rural Telephone Service's white pages. Rural sued Feist for copyright infringement.
U.S. Supreme Court Proceedings Edit
While the facts underlying a compilation cannot be protected by copyright, the author can claim protection of the manner in which the facts are presented. To qualify for copyright protection a work must be original to the author. To be original a work must (1) be independently created by the author and (2) possess at least some minimal degree of creativity.
Compilations of facts can be copyrightable if they 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."
How much creativity is "at least some minimal degree of creativity?" The Court does not provide a clear positive test other than to say that the work must contain "some creative spark, no matter how crude, humble or obvious it might be," the work does not need to be novel, but cannot be copied,  and the work must contain "the fruits of intellectual labor."
Rather, the Court defined the minimal "creativity" requirement more in the negative as to what is not sufficient: "works in which the creative spark is utterly lacking or so trivial as to be virtually nonexistent," works which are "entirely typical," "garden-variety," "devoid of even the slightest trace of creativity," "could not be more obvious," and "firmly rooted in tradition and so commonplace that it has come to be expected as a matter of course....not only unoriginal, it is practically inevitable."
Finally, it should be noted that when a compilation of public domain information is protected, the copyright is relatively "thin" and limited to the selection and arrangement of such information. The Court explained that:
|“||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. Others may copy the underlying facts from the publication, but not the precise words used to present them. 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 an another's publication to aid in preparing a competing work, so long as the competing work does not feature the same selection and arrangement. [T]he very same facts and ideas may be divorced from the context imposed by the author, and restated or reshuffled by second comers, even if the author was the first to discover the facts or to propose the ideas.||”|
Overall, the Court made clear that copyright rewards originality, not effort. The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but "[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts."
- ↑ Id. at 370.
- ↑ Id. at 369, citing M. Nimmer & D. Nimmer, Copyright 1.08[C].
- ↑ Id. at 369, citing Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corp. 81 F.2d 49, 54, 28 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 330 (2d Cir. 1936)(full-text).
- ↑ Id. at 369, citing The Trade-Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82 (1884)(full-text).
- ↑ Id. at 377 citing Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co., 188 U.S. 239, 251 (1903)(full-text) (referring to "the narrowest and most obvious limits").
- ↑ Id. at 380.
- ↑ Id. at 380.
- ↑ Id. at 371, citing Art. I, 8, cl 8.; accord Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U.S. 151, 156 (1975)(full-text).