Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Company, Inc.

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499 U.S. 340 (1991), argued 9 Jan. 1991, decided 27 Mar. 1991 by vote of 9 to 0; O’Connor for the Court, Blackmun concurring. Rural published a local white-pages telephone directory. Feist resorted Rural's listings and included them in a regional directory overlapping Rural's service area. Rural claimed copyright infringement. The Supreme Court held Rural's copyright invalid.

Feist's importance lies in its reaffirmation of copyright's historic character as the law of authorship and its rejection of the latter-day heresy that copyright also protects works, or portions of works, which are the product not of authorship but of “industrious collection” (or “sweat of the brow”). In short, “copyright rewards originality, not effort” (p. 1297).

In so deciding, the Court relied on the Copyright Clause of the Constitution, which authorizes Congress to grant exclusive rights in creative works only to their “Authors,” and the Court's own precedents, including Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises (1985), which reinforced prior rulings that no one can claim authorship in facts or other nonoriginal matter. In addition, the Court found that the current Copyright Act limits protection in compilations like Rural's directory to the compiler's originality in selecting or arranging preexisting data or other materials.

Feist's impact upon claims of copyright protection in so-called low authorship works beyond directories—from certain computer databases to page numbers in law reports and statutory compilations—may be great. Whether Congress can legislate noncopyright protection in these instances, for example, via the Commerce Clause, remains to be seen. But by jealously guarding the public domain against appropriation by would-be copyright owners of matter that they have not authored, Feist at least assures more careful consideration of such claims by Congress and the courts.

Craig Joyce

Subjects: Law.

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