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Feist v. Rural Telephone Service Co

    Citation. 499 U.S. 340, 111 S. Ct. 1282, 113 L. Ed. 2d 358,1991 U.S.

    Brief Fact Summary. A publishing company used information from a telephone directory to publish its own directory.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be original to the author, which means that the work was independently created by the author, and it possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity. A work may be original even thought it closely resembles other works so long as the similarity is fortuitous, not the result of copying.


    Facts. Rural Telephone Service Company, Inc. (Plaintiff) provides telephone service to several communities. Due to a state regulation, it must issue an annual telephone directory, so it published a directory consisting of white and yellow pages. The yellow pages have advertisements that generate revenue. Feist Publications, Inc. (Defendant) is a publishing company whose directory covers a larger range than a typical directory. Defendant distributes their telephone books free of charge, and they also generate revenue through the advertising in the yellow pages. Plaintiff refused to give a license to Defendant for the phone numbers in the area, so Defendant used them without Plaintiff’s consent. Rural sued for copyright infringement.

    Issue. Are the names, addresses, and phone numbers in a telephone directory able to be copyrighted?

    Held. No.
    Facts cannot be copyrighted, however compilations of facts can generally be copyrighted.
    To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be original to the author, which means that the work was independently created by the author, and it possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity. A work may be original even thought it closely resembles other works so long as the similarity is fortuitous, not the result of copying.
    Facts are not original. The first person to find and report a particular fact has not created the fact; he has merely discovered its existence. Facts may not be copyrighted and are part of the public domain available to every person.
    Factual compilations may possess the requisite originality. The author chooses what facts to include, in what order to place them, and how to arrange the collected date so they may be effectively used by readers. Thus, even a directory that contains no written expression that could be protected, only facts, meets the constitutional minimum for copyright protection if it features an original selection or arrangement. But, even though the format is original, the facts themselves do not become original through association. The copyright on a factual compilation is limited to formatting. The copyright does not extend to the facts themselves.
    To establish copyright infringement, two elements must be proven: ownership of a valid copyright and copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. The first element is met in this case because the directory contains some forward text. As to the second element, the information contains facts, which cannot be copyrighted. They existed before being reported and would have continued to exist if a telephone directory had never been published. There is no originality in the formatting, so there is no copyrightable expression. Thus, there is no copyright infringement.

    Discussion. Facts cannot be subject to copyright laws; otherwise there would be no spreading of information or learning. Subjecting facts to copyright laws would mean that any time a person used a fact found in a book, be it in a school paper, newspaper, or another book, that person would be guilty of piracy.


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