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Baker v. Selden

Law Dictionary
CASE BRIEFS

Law Dictionary

Featuring Black's Law Dictionary 2nd Ed.
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Intellectual Property Keyed to Merges


Citation. Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99, 25 L. Ed. 841, 1879 U.S. LEXIS 1888, 11 Otto 99 (U.S. Jan. 19, 1880)

Brief Fact Summary. Baker (Defendant) sold forms similar to forms contained in a bookkeeping system within Selden’s (Plaintiff) copyrighted book.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The copyright protection for a book explaining an art or system extends only to the author’s unique explanation of it and does not prevent others from using the system or the forms incidentally used.

Facts. Selden (Plaintiff) copyrighted a book in which he used in introductory essay explaining his system of bookkeeping followed by forms to put the system to use.  He had arranged the columns and headings so that the entire operation of a day, week or month was on a single page or on two pages facing each other.  Baker (Defendant) then began selling forms with columns and headings arranged differently to achieve the same result.  When Plaintiff successfully sued for copyright infringement, Defendant appealed.  He argued that the forms were non-copyrightable.

Issue. Does copyright protection for a book explaining an art or system prevent others from using the system or the forms incidentally used?

Held. (Bradley, J.)  No.  The copyright protection for a book explaining an art or system extends only to the author’s unique explanation of it and does not prevent others from using the system or the forms incidentally used.  To find that a copyright protected against use of the system itself or the forms necessary to such use would be to grant protection similar to a patent without requiring a showing of novelty.  Copyright is based on originality, not novelty, and protects the explanation of the system and not the use of the system.  In this case, therefore, the copyright Selden (Plaintiff) obtained could not give him the exclusive right to use the bookkeeping system or the forms necessary to such use.  Reversed and remanded.

Discussion. This case has been interpreted by many as allowing copying for use as opposed to copying for the purpose of explanation.  However, in applying this rule, some courts have gone rather far and have allowed something to pass as copying for use when there were alternate ways to arrange the words that could have easily been chosen to communicate the non-copyrightable system or art.  This has provoked much criticism of the interpretation previously mentioned regarding the rule of this case.


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