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Religious Technology Ctr. v. Lerma

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant posted the sacred texts of the Church of Scientology online. Plaintiff sued Defendant for copyright infringement.

     

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A third party may freely use a copyrighted work depending on:1) the purpose and character of the use;2) the nature of the copyrighted work; 3) the amount and extent of the use compared to the work as a whole; and 4) the effect of the use on the market for and the value of the copyrighted work.

    Facts.

    Lerma (Defendant) posted online the sacred texts of the Church of Scientology, called the Operating Thetan Documents (OTDs), over which the Religious Technology Center  (Plaintiff) held copyright. The Church of Scientology followed strict protocols over the distribution and disclosure of the texts, limiting them to only certain church members and storing them in guarded vaults, and requiring nondisclosure agreements from all church members. Defendant posted to a website substantial portions of the texts with little or no commentary. Plaintiff sued Defendant for copyright infringement.

     

    Issue.

    Whether a third party may freely use a copyrighted work depending on:1) the purpose and character of the use;2) the nature of the copyrighted work; 3) the amount and extent of the use compared to the work as a whole; and 4) the effect of the use on the market for and the value of the copyrighted work.

    Held.

    Yes. The court rules in favor of Plaintiff. A third party may freely use a copyrighted work depending on:1) the purpose and character of the use;2) the nature of the copyrighted work; 3) the amount and extent of the use compared to the work as a whole; and 4) the effect of the use on the market for and the value of the copyrighted work.

    Discussion.

    A third party may freely use a copyrighted work if such use constitutes fair use.The factors used to determine fair use must be considered as a whole and no single factor is dispositive. First, copying and posting of a copyrighted work is usually protected as a fair use if such activity constitutes criticism, comment, news reporting, or scholarship. In addition, non-commercial use is more likely permissible as a fair use than is commercial use. Although Defendant’s posting of the OTDs was non-commercial, his use was not one of the uses enumerated above. Even if it was, wholesale copying of copyrighted work would militate against finding fair use. Regarding the nature of the copyrighted work, the fair-use defense is broader for factual or informative works than for creative or literary works. Also, fair use is more likely if the work is published. Whether the author has any intention of ever publishing the work is irrelevant. A work can be deemed de facto published if it has been widely disseminated or is otherwise widely available, but only if the author has given implied or actual consent to the dissemination. The OTDs clearly have not been published, Plaintiff has not released them to the public, and Plaintiff has not consented to its dissemination, implicitly or otherwise. The fact that the OTDs are publicly available in court documents does not change the nature of the work. Third, the greater the degree of copying or use, the less likely the use will be fair use, but even if there is quantitatively little copying, fair use is less likely if the copied material forms the essence of the copyrighted work. Thus there is a quantitative and qualitative aspect to this factor. Although there is no absolute rule regarding how much can be copied, wholesale copying of a copyrighted work will often bar the fair use defense. Here, Defendant copied the OTDs so extensively that the qualitative aspect need not be considered. Finally, the fourth factor considers the injury that the copyright owner has suffered or might suffer as a result of the alleged infringement. However, a court must distinguish between criticism that suppresses demand, for example, and copyright infringement, which usurps demand. Plaintiff has not presented any specific evidence of the effect that Defendant’s postings have had or could have on the Church of Scientology, nor is Defendant competing with the church. This is the only factor that favors Defendant. Accordingly, Defendant’s copying and posting of the works do not constitute fair use.


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