Copyrightability

Kenneth M. Stern v. Does, et al., C.D.Ca., No. CV 09-01986 DMG (April, 2011)

A single sentence sent to a list serve formed the basis of the copyright infringement action in this case.

Specifically, an attorney sent a single sentence seeking information regarding a certified public accounting firm which he suspected had over-billed his client. One of the recipients of the single sentence email forwarded it to the CPA firm in question. The author lawyer took umbrage that his under cover effort was revealed; filed and obtained a copyright registration and filed a copyright infringement action naming the ‘Does’ of the entire list serve as the defendants.

The single sentence, in its entirety, is this: “Has anyone had a problem with White, Zuckerman . . . CPAs including their economist employee, Venita McMorris, over-billing or trying to churn the file?”

The court in the Central District of California held that the single sentence was uncopyrightable; and went further to say that if it had been copyrightable, then the forwarding of the email would have been protected by the Fair Use Doctrine.

“This is unsurprising. In an age of blogs, listservs, and other online forum, a person’s short comment in cyberspace is frequently quoted in its entirety as others reply or forward it elsewhere. It would be strange, dangerous even, if such quotation subjected the copier to liability and a federal lawsuit. Such heavy-handed tactics are akin to using a cannon to kill a mosquito; they carry the same attendant risk of collateral damage by chilling free speech. A free and vibrant democracy depends upon the unfettered exchange of ideas.”

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