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Court Cases

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 9 months ago

Summary of Important Copyright lawsuits


Folsom v. Marsh (1841)

Importance of case: In this case, the court’s definition of what was a justifiable use of original material was the foundation for the “fair use” doctrine.

Summary of the case: The case took place in 1841 in the Massachusetts Circuit Court. Charles Upham was sued, by the owner and editor of a multi-volume collection of George Washington’s letters, because he has published 350 pages of Washington’s letters in his 866-page book. Upham’s defense was that these letters were not “proper subjects of copyright” because the author was deceased, and they were not literary. He also argued that he had the right to abridge and select portions of these letters for his work.

Decision: The court ruled that Upham did violate copyright law. Justice William Story said that letter writers and their heirs possess copyright no matter the content. He also said, “ It is certainly not necessary, to constitute an invasion of copyright, that the whole of a work should be copied, or even a large portion of it, in form or in substance. If so much is taken, that the value of the original is sensibly diminished, or the labors of the original author are substantially to an injurious extent appropriated by another, that is sufficient, in point of law, to constitute a piracy pro tanto” (Association of Research Libraries, par. 6).


Stowe v. Thomas (1853)

Importance of the case: This was the cause of many American authors to stand up for the idea of copyright as property, and helped bring about a revision of the copyright law.

Summary of the case: Harriet Beecher Stowe, sued F.W Thomas, for translating her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin into German in 1853.

Decision: The court rules in favor of Thomas. The court said that once an author published his/her thoughts, sentiments and knowledge to the world, the author no longer has the rights to them (Cohen and Rosenzweig, par. 4).


Williams and Wilkins Co. v. United States (1973)

Importance of the case: Helped to show Congress that new technological developments impact on copyright needed to be addressed in the U.S. Copyright Act.

Summary of the Case: Williams and Wilkins Co., publishers of medical journals, sued the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, saying that they made unauthorized photocopies of articles in their journal and then distributed them to medical researchers.

Decision: The Court decided that NLM and NIH did not infringe because no significant detriment could be seen to the plaintiff and that to infringe medical information could injure medical and scientific research. The Court urged congressional treatment of the problems with photocopying (Association of Research Libraries, par. 14).


Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc. (1991)

Importance of the case: This case helped to define what can be protected by copyright law.

Summary of the case: Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc. sued Feist Publications for using information from their company to compile a telephone directory.

Decision: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Feist did not infringe on copyright because in order for a work to receive copyright protection, the work must be a creative expression or original. The Court said that the information was just a collection of facts (Association of Research Libraries, par. 24).


Playboy Enterprises Inc. v. Frena (1993)

Significance of the case: Frame of mind does not matter when evaluating if copyright protection was infringed.

Summary of the case: Playboy said that Frena, an electronic bulletin board operator, infringed on their copyright when one of Playboy’s photographs was digitized and put on the bulletin board system by a subscriber and then downloaded by another subscriber. Frena claimed that he did not know that these images had been uploaded and that they were present on his service.

Decision: The Florida Northern District Court said that Frena did violate Playboy’s copyright because intent to infringe copyright is not needed to prove infringement (Association of Research Libraries, par. 28).


Religious Technology Center v. Netcom (1995)

Significance of the case: The case was significant because of the implications for Internet Service Providers and the ability to use of the fair use doctrine as a defense against charges of infringement.

Summary of the case: An Internet Service Provider did not remove copyrighted material posted by a subscriber.

Decision: A federal judge in the Northern District Court of California, Justice Whyte, ruled that, "mere possession of a digital copy on a server that is accessible to some members of the public" does not constitute direct infringement of the exclusive right to publicly distribute and display. But that the ISP was liable for contributory infringement (Association of Research Libraries, par. 33).



The History of International Copyright Law


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