Copyright Law: Generally Copyrightable Subject Matter

Copyright Contract

This post is part of a series of posts entitled A Legal Guide to the Internet. For a comprehensive list of articles contained in this series, click here.

The Constitution of the United States provides Congress with the power to grant authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries as necessary to promote the progress of science and useful arts. Congress established copyright laws to provide copyright owners with a specific set of exclusive rights with regard to the material they create. Copyright ownership can be obtained in the following categories of materials (17 U.S.C. § 102(a)):

  1. Literary works
  2. Musical works (including lyrics)
  3. Dramatic works (including music)
  4. Pantomimes/choreographic works
  5. Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  6. Motion picture/audio visual works
  7. Sound recordings
  8. Architectural works

To the extent that any of the above works are original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression, they are entitled to protection under the copyright laws. The work must be original and creative, but not necessarily novel as is required in patent law. The work must simply be an independent creation that is not copied from any other work. See Feist Publications Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991).

Securing Copyrights for Databases

A database may qualify as copyrightable subject matter. While individual facts or ideas are not copyrightable, a collection of data that is selected or arranged in a unique way may constitute a compilation and may be protected under the United States Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 101). According to Feist, a compilation must, however, contain a minimum level of creativity to be copyrightable. The database must be original in its selection, coordination, and arrangement. Feist rejected the “sweat of the brow” argument, which took into consideration the time and effort expended to create the database. Even uncopyrightable databases may be protected through a contract or license that limits the use of the database. See ProCD, Inc. v Zeidenberg Inc., 86 F.3d 1447 (7th Cir. 1996). While acknowledging in ProCD that the database at issue -a compilation of names, addresses and phone numbers ­may not have been sufficiently original to be copyrightable, the defendant in ProCD was still held liable for breach of contract based upon the terms of the shrink-wrap license.

Securing Copyrights for Computer Programs

Computer programs have also been deemed copyrightable subject matter. Computer programs receive protection under the category of literary works. The most protectable elements of computer programs reside with the object and source codes. See Control Data Sys., Inc. v. Infoware, Inc., 903 F. Supp. 1316 (D. Minn. 1995). This is because such codes represent expressions, rather than ideas. According to Control Data, the program’s main purpose and structure receive the least protection because such elements constitute abstract ideas, and ideas are never entitled to copyright protection.

This and the following posts have been copied or adopted from A Legal Guide To The INTERNET – Sixth Edition, published through a collaborative effort by the Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development and Merchant & Gould.

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