UnIP (UnIntellectual Property): Copyright for Facts, Ideas, Fragmented Words and Phrases

This, out of the United States District Court in Massachusetts, the Court performed the dissection test to identify the protected elements under copyright law of Plaintiff’s book.  The dispute stems from Plaintiff, a Doctor, having originated a treatment approach for resolving problems between children and their caregivers.  Plaintiff alleged that his former colleague, Defendant, with whom he had also co-authored books, infringed his copyright through the use of the material in presentations and also treatment materials.  The Court was tasked with determining which portions of Plaintiff’s book was entitled to copyright protection.

To do so, the Court dissected the copyrighted work and separated its original expressive elements from its unprotected content.  In doing so, it recognized that the point of the dissection test is “to identify those aspects of the expression that are not necessarily mandated by the idea it embodies.”  In short, the Court recognized that just because a work is copyrighted does not mean every element of the work is entitled to protection.

The Court identified the following as being unprotected:

1. Unprotected Facts/Ideas – this included conventional wisdom about prior behavioral approaches to challenging children and the fact the idea that outbursts may be predictable, both of which were mere facts or ideas not warranting copyright protection.  Put another way, the idea itself—i.e., a collaborative approach can help explosive children and their parents cope—is not protectable but the expression of that overarching idea and the ideas that support that idea as expressed in the book are.

2. Unprotected Fragmented Words and Phrases – this included transitional phrases and the statement of the meaning of a commonly understood word, both of which lacked the requested creativity to warrant protection.

After conducting a dissection analysis, the Court held that the Plaintiff’s book contained sufficient protected expression to warrant copyright protection.  However, the Court noted that whether there is substantial similarity between these protected expressions and elements of Defendant’s workshop materials is a matter for the jury.  Moreover, the Court recognized that there are disputed issues of fact as to whether Defendant was also entitled to copyright ownership as co-author.

This case is a good example of a court performing the dissection analysis in copyright law.  Copyright attorneys often advise their clients as to which elements may be protected via copyright and often note that just because something, such as a book, is copyrighted does not mean that everything in it is protected.  This area of law is so fact specific that it may be difficult to glean a whole lot from the analysis, which arguably was held as such to let the jury decide the matter.  Nevertheless, this case reinforces that copyright ownership and copyright protection are not one in the same.  Yes you may own a copyright in a work, but that work is subject to dissection so as to limit that which you truly own.

Greene v. Ablon, 2012 WL 6045974 (D. Mass. Dec. 4, 2012).


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