UnIP (UnIntellectual Property): Copyright for book’s subtitle “Founding of the Facebook”

This case involves a pro se plaintiff, a 2004 graduate of Harvard University, filing a five-count complaint seeking damages and injunctive relief against numerous defendants, including Random House, Inc. and Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. a/k/a Sony Pictures a/k/a Columbia Tristar Motion Picture Group. Plaintiff authored a book entitled “Authoritas: One Student’s Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.” Random House published a book, authored by another defendant, entitled “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal.” Plaintiff alleged that this book “is an unauthorized derivative of [Plaintiff’s] non-fiction book Authoritas.”

The United States Federal District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted Defendants’ Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. In doing so, it analyzed whether Plaintiff’s allegations that (1) the subtitle for The Accidental Billionaires includes the phrase “Founding of Facebook,” similar to the use of “Founding of the Facebook” in his book Authoritas; and (2) the chapter headings “Harvard Yard” and “Veritas” in The Accidental Billionaires are similar to the chapter heading “The Cars of Harvard Yard” in Authoritas and exactly the same as the chapter heading “Veritas” in Authoritas constitutes copyright infringement. The Court held that “[n]one of the expressions in (1) or (2) deserve copyright protection because the phrase “founding of” is a cliché expression conveying the origin of something, “Harvard Yard” is the name of a location, and “Veritas” is simply the Latin translation of the word “truth.””

Ultimately, this opinion reinforces, with specific examples, that copyright law provides protection only to the author’s original expression of such facts and ideas, not the facts and ideas themselves. Would an attorney have been able to help the Plaintiff limits its claims in such a way that it could survive a motion to dismiss and potentially lead to an actionable claim and monetary recovery? Regardless, this is an instructive decision for copyright claimants, copyright attorneys, and copyright enthusiasts. Maybe someone will like this on Facebook (as if Facebook was not already aware of it).

Greenspan v. Random House, Inc., 859 F. Supp. 2d 206, 210-11 (D. Mass. 2012).


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