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To determine whether the merger doctrine is applicable in any case, the court must focus on whether the idea is capable of various modes of expression. Thus, the court must first identify the idea that the work expresses, and then attempt to distinguish that idea from the author's expression of it. If the court concludes that the idea and its expression are inseparable, then the merger doctrine applies and the expression will not be protected. Conversely, if the court can distinguish the idea from its expression, then the expression will be protected because the fact that one author has copyrighted one expression of that idea will not prevent other authors from creating and copyrighting their own expressions of the same idea. In all cases, the guiding consideration in drawing the line is the preservation of the balance between competition and protection reflected in the patent and copyright laws.
Hodge E. Mason, Hodge Mason Maps, Inc., and Hodge Mason Engineers, Inc. (collectively Mason) sued Montgomery Data, Inc. (MDI), Landata, Inc. of Houston (Landata), and Conroe Title & Abstract Co. (Conroe Title), claiming that the defendants infringed Mason's copyrights on 233 real estate ownership maps of Montgomery County, Texas. The district court initially held that Mason cannot recover statutory damages or attorney's fees for any infringement of 232 of the copyrights. The court later held that Mason's maps are not copyrightable under the idea expression merger doctrine, and granted summary judgment for the defendants.
Were Mason's maps copyrightable under the idea expression merger doctrine?
The court stated that the decision whether to apply the doctrine depended on the definition of the idea and the balance between competition and protection reflected in the copyright laws. Noting that Mason’s ideas were easily separable from their various expressions, the court held that the idea expression merger doctrine was inapplicable and the maps were an original work of authorship under 17 U.S.C.S. § 101. In addition, the selection, coordination, and arrangement of the facts established the maps' originality. The court reversed the holding that the maps were not copyrightable. Regarding damages, however, the court agreed that Mason could recover statutory damages for only one infringement because only one infringer acted after registration.