United States copyright law governs the legally enforceable rights of creative and artistic works in the United States. We are frequently accused of copyright infringement, where in fact either no copyright exists in a work, or the use or review of material is fair.  The following case precedent may be useful to persons thinking of complaining to a publisher.



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


Supreme Court of the United States


Argued January 9, 1991

Decided March 27, 1991

Full case name:

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


499 U.S. 340; 111 S. Ct. 1282; 113 L. Ed. 2d 358; 1991 U.S. LEXIS 1856; 59 U.S.L.W. 4251; 18 U.S.P.Q.2D (BNA) 1275; Copy. L. Rep. (CCH) P26,702; 68 Rad. Reg. 2d (P & F) 1513; 18 Media L. Rep. 1889; 121 P.U.R.4th 1; 91 Cal. Daily Op. Service 2217; 91 Daily Journal DAR 3580

Prior history:

Summary judgment for plaintiff, 663 F. Supp. 214 (D. Kan. 1987); affirmed, reported at 916 F.2d 718 (10th Cir. 1990); affirmed, full opinion at 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 25881 (10th Cir. 1990); cert. granted, 498 U.S. 808 (1990)

Subsequent history:


A telephone book did not satisfy the minimum originality required by the Constitution to be eligible for copyright protection, and effort and expenditure of resources are not protected by copyright. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

Court membership

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist

Associate Justices Byron White, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter

Case opinions

Majority by: O'Connor

Joined by: Rehnquist, White, Marshall, Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter

Concurrence by: Blackmun

Laws applied

U.S. Const. Art. I






Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991), commonly called just Feist v. Rural, was a United States Supreme Court case in which Feist copied information from Rural's telephone listings to include in its own, after Rural refused to license the information. Rural sued for copyright infringement. The Court ruled that information contained in Rural's phone directory was not copyrightable, and that therefore no infringement existed.





Rural Telephone Service Company, Inc. was a telephone provider for areas in north-west Kansas. The company was under a statutory obligation to compile a phone directory of all their customers free of charge as condition to their monopoly franchise.


Feist Publications, Inc. specialized in compiling telephone directories from larger geographic areas than Rural. They had licenced the directory of 11 other local directories with Rural being the only hold-out in the region. Feist went ahead and copied some 4000 entries from Rural's directory. Rural, however, had placed a small number of phony entries to detect copying and caught Feist.


Prior to this case, the subsistence of copyright in United States law followed the sweat of the brow doctrine that gave copyright to anyone who invested significant amount of time and energy into their work. At trial and appeal level the courts followed this doctrine siding for Rural.



Ruling of the Court


The unanimous ruling of the Court was given by Justice O'Connor. In this she examines the purpose of copyright and proposes a new standard for subsistance of copyright based on originality.


It is a long-standing principle of United States copyright law that "information" is not copyrightable, O'Connor notes, but "collections" of information can be. Rural claimed a collection copyright in its directory. The court clarified that the intent of copyright law was not, as claimed by Rural and some lower courts, to reward the efforts of persons collecting information, but rather "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" (U.S. Const. 1.8.8), that is, to encourage creative expression.


Since facts are purely copied from the world around us, O'Connor concludes, "the sine qua non of copyright is originality". However, the standard for creativity is extremely low. It need not be novel, rather it only needs to possess a "spark" or "minimal degree" of creativity to be protected by copyright.


In regard to collections of facts, O'Connor states that copyright can only apply to the creative aspects of collection: the creative choice of what data to include or exclude, the order and style in which the information is presented, etc., but not on the information itself. If Feist were to take the directory and rearrange them it would destroy the copyright owned in the data.


The court ruled that Rural's directory was nothing more than an alphabetic list of all subscribers to its service, which it was required to compile under law, and that no creative expression was involved. The fact that Rural spent considerable time and money collecting the data was irrelevant to copyright law, and Rural's copyright claim was dismissed.



Justice Sandra O'Connor




The ruling has major implications for any project that serves as a collection of knowledge. Information (that is facts, discoveries, etc.), from any source, is fair game, but cannot contain any of the "expressive" content added by the source author. That includes not only the author's own comments, but also his choice of which facts to cover, his choice of which links to make among the bits of information, his order of presentation (unless it is something obvious like an alphabetical list), any evaluations he may have made about the quality of various pieces of information, or anything else that might be considered "original creative work" of the author rather than mere facts.


For example, a recipe is a process, and not copyrightable, but the words used to describe it are; see Publications Int'l v Meredith Corp., 88 F.3d 473 (7th Cir. 1996). Therefore, you can rewrite a recipe in your own words and publish it without infringing copyrights. But if you rewrote every recipe from a particular cookbook, you might still be found to have infringed the author's copyright in the choice of recipes and their "coordination" and "presentation", even if you used different words, though the West decisions below suggest that this is unlikely unless there is some significant creativity in the presentation.


The text of US Laws is in the public domain, but Thomson West claims a copyright on the page numbers in its printed edition of those laws. By this reasoning, you could refer to a law or even include large excerpts with impunity, but if you reproduce it in such a way as to deliberately preserve West's page numbers, you might be in trouble. This copyright claim has been defeated in two court cases [1]. West v. Mead[2] (No. 85-5399 799 F.2d 1219)(1986) and Matthew Bender & Company, Inc., & Hyperlaw, Inc., vs. West Publishing Co (No. 97-7430).


The West claim of originality in the way it presented its reports of decisions has also been found to be uncreative and therefore not copyrightable, in Matthew Bender v. West Publishing Co. (158 F.3d 674) [3] (may be known as Hyperlaw, Inc. v. West Publishing Company, 94 Civ. 589 (SDNY 1997)).


Another case covering this area is Assessment Technologies v. WIREdata [4], which ruled that a copyright holder in a compilation of public domain data cannot use that copyright to prevent others from using the underlying public domain data, but may only restrict the specific format of the compilation, if that format is itself sufficiently creative.


In the late 1990s, Congress attempted to pass laws which would protect collections of data, but these measures failed. By contrast, the European Union has a sui generis (specific to that type of work) intellectual property protection for collections of data.



Other countries


The subsistance of copyright in phone directories have come up in several other countries.


In Canada, the appeal-level case of Tele-Direct (Publications) Inc. v. American Business Informations Inc. (1997) 76 C.P.R. (3d) 296 (F.C.A.) reached a similar result to that of Feist. However, the Supreme Court backed away from the originality doctrine in CCH Canadian Ltd. v. Law Society of Upper Canada.


In Australia, the Federal Court decision of Desktop Marketing Systems Pty Ltd v Telstra [2002] FCAFC 112 followed the UK approach in Walter v. Lane and ruled that subsistance in copyright did in-fact follow the "sweat of the brow" doctrine.



Relation with treaties


Congress has been considering whether to implement a treaty negotiated at the World Trade Organization. Part of the Uruguay Round Agreement resulted in text which states, in Part II, Section 1, Article 10:


Compilations of data or other material, whether in machine readable or other form, which by reason of the selection or arrangement of their contents constitute intellectual creations shall be protected as such. Such protection, which shall not extend to the data or material itself, shall be without prejudice to any copyright subsisting in the data or material itself.


The text mirrors that of Article 2(5) of the Berne Convention, which applies to "collections of literary or artistic works".


This treaty provision is broadly in line with the United States Copyright Act and the Act's case law, which protects compilations of data whose "selection and arrangement" is sufficiently original. See 17 U.S.C. 101 ("compilation" as defined by the United States Copyright Act includes compilations of data). The standard for such originality is fairly low; for example, business listings have been found to meet this standard when deciding which companies should be listed and categorizing those companies required some kind of expert judgement. See Key Publ'ns, Inc. v. Chinatown Today Pub. Enters., 945 F.2d 509 (2d Cir. 1991) (applying Feist). As such, implementation of this treaty would not overrule Feist.










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