List of copyright case law

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    The following is a list of cases that deal with issues of concern to copyright in various jurisdictions. Some of these cases are leading English cases as the law of copyright in various Commonwealth jurisdictions developed out of English law while these countries were colonies of the British Empire. Other cases provide background in areas of copyright law that may be of interest for the legal reasoning or the conclusions they reach.


    • Victoria Park Racing & Recreation Grounds Co Ltd v Taylor,[1] idea-expression divide
    • ,[2] (a literary work cannot be infringed by a three-dimensional reproduction)
    • Pacific Film Laboratories v Commissioner of Tax,[3] considered negative rights - the power to prevent the making of a physical thing by copying.
    • ,[4] there is no copyright in the idea of a theme or a story, but there may be a time where a combination of events and characters reaches sufficient complexity as to give rise to dramatic work copyright
    • ,[5] (test in Exxon for literary work is "not intended to establish a comprehensive or exhasutive definition of literary work for copyright purposes" per Mason and Wilson JJ)
    • ,[6] (a cover version of a song can be an original work itself capable of copyright protection)
    • ,[7] (1990) 17 IPR 417 per Pincus J, the drive mechanism of a law mower was not a sculpture
    • (Morning Star Pole ten-dollar note case),[8] copyright law does not provide adequate protection of Aboriginal community claims to regulate the reproduction and use of works which are essentially communal in origin
    • ,[9] (1993) 111 ALR 385 (the idea-expression divide is the "dominant principle in copyright law" per Mason CJ: "when the expression of any idea is inseparable from its function, it forms part of the idea and is not entitled to the protection of copyright" per Dawson J)
    • ,[10] interactive video games involving computer-generated images are cinematograph films as defined in s 10 of the Copyright Act 1968.





    New Zealand

    • (1989) APIC 90-590: Privy Council definition of "dramatic works": " a dramatic work must have sufficient unity to be capable of performance"

    United Kingdom

    United States

    Note: if no court name is given, according to convention, the case is from the Supreme Court of the United States. Supreme Court rulings are binding precedent across the United States; Circuit Court rulings are binding within a certain portion of it (the circuit in question); District Court rulings are not binding precedent, but may still be referred to by other courts.

    Case name Reporter Court/Year Findings
    Wheaton v. Peters 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 591 1834 There is no such thing as common law copyright and one must observe the formalities to secure a copyright.
    Folsom v. Marsh 9. F.Cas. 342 (C.C.D. Mass. 1841) 1841 Fair use.
    Baker v. Selden 101 U.S. 99 1879 Idea-expression divide.
    Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony 111 U.S. 53 1884 Extended copyright protection to photography.
    White-Smith Music Publishing Company v. Apollo Company 209 U.S. 1 1908 Reproduction of the sounds of musical instruments playing music for which copyright granted not a violation of the copyright.
    Bobbs-Merrill Co v. Straus 210 U.S. 339 1908 No license to use copyrighted material. License cannot extend holder's rights beyond statute defined by Congress.
    Bauer & Cie. v. O'Donnell 229 U.S. 1 1913 Differences between patent and copyright defined also prohibits a license from extending holder's rights beyond statute.
    Macmillan Co. v. King 223 F. 862 D.Mass. 1914 Limits of fair use with respect to an educational context and to summaries.
    Nutt v. National Institute Inc. 31 F.2d 236 2d Cir. 1929 It is not the subject that is protected by copyright. It is the treatment of a subject that is protected.
    Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp. 45 F.2d 119 2d Cir. 1930 No copyright for "stock characters".
    Cain v. Universal Pictures 47 F.Supp. 1013 S. Dist. Calif 1942 Scènes à faire
    Shostakovich v. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. 196 Misc. 67, 80 N.Y.S.2d 575 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1948), aff'd 275 A.D. 692, 87 N.Y.S.2d 430 (1949) 1948–9 No moral rights in public domain works.
    191 F.2d 99 2d. Cir. 1951 Variations of works in the public domain can be copyrighted if the new "author" contributed something more than a "merely trivial" variation, but no large measure of novelty is necessary.
    National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Publications 191 F.2d 594 (1951), clarified 198 F.2d 927 (1952) 2d Cir. 1951–2 Derivative works; an author does not forfeit his copyright to a piece of intellectual property if his work is contracted to another who fails to properly copyright works which incorporate the original property (obsoleted by Copyright Act of 1976).
    F. W. Woolworth Co. v. Contemporary Arts, Inc. 344 U.S. 228 1952 Provided wide latitude to judges when determining legal remedies based on the facts of the case.
    Mazer v. Stein 347 U.S. 201 1954 Extended copyright protection to applied art.
    Irving Berlin et al. v. E.C. Publications, Inc. 329 F. 2d 541 2d. Cir. 1964 Parody.
    392 U.S. 390 1968 Television broadcasters "perform" copyrighted works. Viewers do not perform. CATV was more like a viewer than a broadcaster and did not infringe when rebroadcasting copyrighted works.
    Roth Greeting Cards v. United Card Co 429 F.2d 1106 9th Cir. 1970 Copyright may be infringed when total concept and feel is the same
    Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States 487 F.2d 1345 Ct. Cl. 1973 Libraries' photocopying for research was fair use.
    Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken 422 U.S. 151 1975 Playing a radio broadcast of a copyrighted work at a business was not copyright infringement Radio reception does not constitute a "performance" of copyrighted material.
    Reyher v. Children's Television Workshop 533 F.2d 87 2d Cir. 1976 The essence of infringement lies in taking not a general theme but its particular expression
    Gilliam v. American Broadcasting 538 F.2d 14 2d Cir. 1976 Moral rights infringed by unauthorized editing of TV show
    Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions Inc. v. McDonald's Corp. 562 F.2d 1157 9th Cir. 1977 Extrinsic and intrinsic tests may be used to determine substantial similarity
    Wainwright Securities v. Wall Street Transcript Corp 558 F.2d 91 2d Cir. 1977 The essence or purpose of legitimate journalism is the reporting of objective facts or developments, not the appropriation of the form of expression used by the news source
    Miller v. Universal City Studios, Inc. 650 F.2d 1365 5th Cir. 1981 A writer's research is not copyrightable.
    667 F.2d 102 D.C. Cir. 1981 Affirmed that copyright exists for works created by contractors for the US government.
    Stern Electronics, Inc. v. Kaufman 669 F.2d 852 2d Cir. 1982 Copyright on computer programs includes images and sounds as well as the computer code.
    See v. Durang 711 F.2d 141 9th Cir. 1983 Copying deleted or so disguised as to be unrecognizable is not copying
    Apple Computer, Inc. v. Franklin Computer Corp. 714 F.2d 1240 3rd Cir. 1983 Computer software is protected by copyright (affirmed and obsoleted by subsequent legislation).
    Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. (the "Betamax case") 464 U.S. 417 1984 Products with substantial non-infringing uses (video recorders) may be sold even if they can be used illicitly. Private, non-commercial recording of programs for time-shifting purposes is fair use.
    Selle v. Gibb 741 F.2nd 896 7th Circ 1984 Where there is lack of evidence of access, access can be inferred only if striking similarities preclude independent creation
    Dowling v. United States 473 U.S. 207 1985 Copyright infringement is not theft, conversion, or fraud; illegally made copies are not stolen goods.
    Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises 471 U.S. 539 1985 The interest served by republication of a public figure's account of an event is not sufficient to permit nontransformative fair use.
    Fisher v. Dees 794 F.2d 432 9th Cir. 1986 Parody of song performance is legitimate fair use
    Whelan v. Jaslow 797 F.2d 1222 3rd Cir. 1986 Copyright protection of computer programs may extend beyond the programs' literal code to their structure, sequence and organization
    Broderbund v. Unison 648 F. Supp. 1127, 1133 N.D. Cal. 1986 Copyright may extend to the look and feel of a computer program's display
    Steinberg v. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. 663 F. Supp. 706 S.D.N.Y. 1987 Derivative works.
    Salinger v. Random House 811 F.2d 90 2d Cir. 1987 An author has a right to protect the expressive content of his unpublished writings for the term of his copyright, and that right prevails over a claim of fair use under "ordinary circumstances"
    Anderson v. Stallone 11 USPQ2D 1161 1989 Derivative works.
    Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid 490 U.S. 730 1989 Works for hire.
    Wright v. Warner Books 953 F.2d 731 2d Cir. 1991 Sparing use of creative expression from unpublished letters and journals may constitute fair use
    758 F. Supp. 1522 S.D.N.Y. 1991 Articles copied for educational use are not necessarily fair use.
    925 F.2d 670, 675-76 3d Cir. 1991 The sale of software is the sale of a good within the meaning of the Uniform Commercial Code.
    929 F.2d 1147, 1150 6th Cir. 1991 The sale of software is the sale of a good within the meaning of the Uniform Commercial Code.
    Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service 499 U.S. 340 1991 Affirmed the need for a minimal amount of creativity before a work is copyrightable. "Sweat of the brow" alone is not sufficient to bestow copyright.
    Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc. 780 F. Supp. 182 SDNY 1991 Music sampling is generally copyright infringement.
    Step-Saver Data Systems, Inc. v. Wyse Technology 939 F.2d 91 3rd Cir. 1991 The need to characterize the transaction as a license to use software is "largely anachronistic.".
    Computer Associates Int. Inc. v. Altai Inc. 982 F.2d 693 2d Cir. 1992 "Substantial similarity" is required for copyright infringement to occur. Established the Abstraction-Filtration-Comparison test, which lays out the steps to follow when extricating copyrightable expression from uncopyrightable elements of the same work.
    Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. v. Nintendo of America, Inc. 780 F. Supp. 1283 9th Cir. 1992 Consumers may modify purchased computer games for their own use.
    Rogers v. Koons 960 F.2d 301 2d Cir. 1992 Fair use and parody.
    MAI Systems Corp. v. Peak Computer, Inc. 991 F.2d 511 9th Cir. 1993 RAM ("working memory") copies of computer programs are governed by copyright.
    Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp. 35 F.3d 1435 9th Cir. 1994 Certain components of computer programs' graphical user interfaces are not copyrightable.
    Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. 510 U.S. 569 1994 Commercial parody can be fair use.
    Carter v. Helmsley-Spear Inc. 861 F. Supp. 303 S.D.N.Y., 1994 Interpreting moral rights provisions of U.S. Visual Artists Rights Act (overturned for other reasons: 71 F.3d 77 (2d Cir. 1995), cert. denied 116 S. Ct. 1824 (1996)).
    United States v. LaMacchia 871 F.Supp. 535 D. Mass 1994 Gave rise to LaMacchia Loophole where criminal charges of fraud or copyright infringement would be dismissed, so long as there was no profit motive involved. The NET Act was passed in 1997 as a direct response to LaMacchia.
    Lotus v. Borland 49 F.3d 807 1st Cir. 1995 Software interfaces per se are "methods of operation" and are not covered by copyright.
    59 F.3d 902, 910 9th Cir. 1995 Renewal rights are not assignable.
    Religious Technology Center v. Netcom 907 F. Supp. 1361 N.D. Cal. 1995 Immunity of copyright liability for Internet Intermediaries.
    Twin Books Corp. v. Walt Disney Co. 83 F.3d 1162, 38 9th Cir. 1996 Foreign works published before 1978 did not establish US copyright until published in the US or with US copyright formalities.
    976 Supp. 149, 155 E.D.N.Y. 1997 The sale of software is the sale of a good. Case was dropped.
    Itar-Tass Russian News Agency v. Russian Kurier, Inc. 153 F.3d 82 2d Cir. 1998 Jurisdiction with closest association to putative owner applies to determine copyright ownership.
    The Yankee Candle Co. v. New England Candle Co. 14 F.Supp.2d 154 District Court of Massachusetts 1998 Internal structure does not qualify as "building" under 17 U.S.C. § 101.
    Bridgeman Art Library Ltd. v. Corel Corporation 36 F. Supp. 2d 191 S.D.N.Y. 1999 "Slavish copying" is inherently uncreative and cannot confer copyright.
    Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc. 194 F.3d 1211 11th Cir. 1999 Giving a public speech is not public-domain publication under the 1909 Copyright Act.
    Microsystems Software, Inc. v. Scandinavia Online AB District Court of Massachusetts 2000 Settled out of court; illustrated problems of reverse engineering and the need for clear copyright notices in IT code
    2000 US Dist. Lexis. 9975 SD Tex. 2000 The first-sale doctrine applies to software.
    UMG v. 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5761 S.D.N.Y. 2000 Distribution of copyrighted music without permission of the copyright holders is infringement even if the downloader already owns a copy of the music.
    A & M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc. 239 F.3d 1004 9th Cir. 2001 Knowingly failing to take steps to prevent infringement, while benefiting from said infringement, is grounds for contributory infringement. Also, users of file-sharing services infringe by both uploading and downloading works without permission.
    New York Times Company v. Tasini 533 U.S. 483 2001 Freelance journalists did not grant electronic republication rights for collective work.
    SoftMan Products Co. v. Adobe Systems Inc. CV 00-04161 DDP (AJWx) C.D.C.A. 2001 The first-sale doctrine applies to software.
    Suntrust v. Houghton Mifflin 252 F. 3d 1165 11th Cir. 2001 Parody and fair use.
    Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Reimerdes 273 F.3d 429 2d Cir. 2001 Affirmed the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
    241 F.3d 398, 416 5th Cir. 2001 A private organization cannot assert copyright protection for its model codes, after the models have been adopted by a legislative body and become the law.
    Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corporation 336 F.3d 811 9th Cir. 2003 Thumbnails and inline linking can be fair use.
    Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. 539 U.S. 23 2003 Trademark cannot preserve rights to a public domain work.
    Eldred v. Ashcroft 537 U.S. 186 2003 Congress may retroactively extend the duration of works still under copyright, as long as the extension is limited.
    CoStar v. LoopNet 373 F.3d 544 4th Cir. 2004 Internet service provider was found not liable for copyright infringement of photographs uploaded by subscribers, despite the screening process by an employee of the Internet service provider before the photographs were stored and displayed.
    Arizona Cartridge Remanufacturers Association Inc. v. Lexmark International Inc. 03-16987 D.C. No. CV-01-04626SBA/JL OPINION 9th Cir. 2005 End User License Agreements on a physical box can be binding on consumers who signal their acceptance of the license agreement by opening the box.
    Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films 410 F.3d 792 6th Cir. 2005 No de minimis exception for sampled music. "Get a license or do not sample. We do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way."
    MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. 545 U.S. 913 2005 Distributors of peer-to-peer file-sharing software can be liable for copyright infringement if there are "affirmative steps taken to foster infringement".
    Perfect 10 v. Google Inc 416 F. Supp. 2d 828 C.D. Cal. 2006 Thumbnails in Web searches were fair use. Framed inline images of full size were not infringing copies. (9th circuit reversed the DC's holding of no Fair Use)
    Perfect 10 v. CCBill LLC 488 F.3d 1102 9th Cir. 2007 DMCA notification procedures place the burden of policing copyright infringement on the owners of the copyright. CDA Section 230 means only “federal intellectual property," and does not include state right of publicity claims.
    Perfect 10 v. Visa 494 F.3d 788 9th Cir. 2007 A case about secondary copyright infringement
    Kahle v. Gonzales No. 04-17434 9th Cir. 2007 Congress did not alter the "traditional contours of copyright protection" by permitting automatic extension of copyrights.
    Lenz v. Universal Music Corp. 572 F. Supp. 2d 1150 N.D. Cal. 2008 Rights holders must consider fair use before issuing a takedown notice. If the notice is issued in bad faith, the rights holder could be held liable for misrepresentation.
    MDY Industries v. Blizzard Entertainment 629 F. 3d 928 9th Cir. 2010 Addressing whether certain unlicensed acts are copyright infringement or merely violations of contract.
    Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick 559 U.S. 154 2010 Failure to register a copyright does not limit a Federal Court's jurisdiction over claims of infringement regarding unregistered works.
    Ouellette v. Viacom International Inc. CV 10–133–M–DWM–JCL; 2011 WL 1882780 D. Mont. 2011 The safe harbor provision of the DMCA does not provide a cause of action against service providers that take down videos.
    Cambridge University Press v. Becker 1:2008cv01425 N.D. Ga. 2011 University's use of copyrighted material in e-reserves does not constitute direct or vicarious infringement.
    Golan v. Holder 565 U.S. ___
    (132 S. Ct. 873)
    2012 Congress may retroactively restore copyright in works that have fallen into the public domain. The Constitution gives broad discretion to Congress to decide how best to promote the "progress of science and the useful arts"
    Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 133 S. Ct. 1351 2013 The first-sale doctrine applies to copies of copyrighted works lawfully made abroad.

    See also


    1. ^ Victoria Park Racing & Recreation Grounds Co Ltd v Taylor [1937] HCA 45, (1937) 58 CLR 479 (26 August 1937), High Court (Australia).
    2. ^ [1963] VicRp 96, [1963] VR 719 (7 August 1962), Supreme Court (Vic, Australia).
    3. ^ Pacific Film Laboratories v Commissioner of Tax [1970] HCA 36, (1970) 121 CLR 154 (9 October 1970), High Court (Australia).
    4. ^ [1982] FCA 241, (1982) 46 ALR 189 (26 November 1982), Federal Court (Australia).
    5. ^ [1986] HCA 19, (1986) 161 CLR 171 (6 May 1986), High Court (Australia).
    6. ^ [1989] FCA 404, (1989) 15 385 (28 September 1989), Federal Court (Australia).
    7. ^ [1990] FCA 111, (1990) 17 417 (11 April 1990), Federal Court (Australia).
    8. ^ [1991] FCA 332, (1991) 21 481 (25 July 1991), Federal Court (Australia).
    9. ^ ("AutoCAD case") [1993] HCA 6, (1993) 176 CLR 300 (21 April 1993), High Court
    10. ^ [1996] FCA 761, (1996) 69 FCR 268; 35 161 (28 August 1996), Federal Court (Australia).