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Miller v. Universal City Studios, Inc., - 650 F.2d 1365 (5th Cir. 1981)


To prevail on a claim of copyright infringement, a plaintiff must prove ownership of the copyright and copying by the alleged infringer. Copying is ordinarily established by proving access to the copyrighted material and substantial similarity between the two works. A defendant can rebut such a showing by offering evidence that his work was independently created, because a copyright, unlike a patent, does not confer an absolute monopoly over the expression but only a right of control over derrived works. If a defendant offers evidence of independent creation, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant in fact copied the protected material.


Appellant film studio produced a made-for-television movie dramatizing a true-life crime that had earlier been depicted in appellee's copyrighted book. Appellant relied in part on appellee's book during the writing of the screenplay. Appellee brought suit for copyright infringement. The evidence at trial conflicted as to whether the scriptwriter relied almost entirely on the book in writing the screenplay or whether he had arrived at his version of the kidnapping story independently. A jury found in favor of appellee. However, the judgment was reversed and remanded on appeal even though the evidence was sufficient to support the finding of infringement because the case was allowed to be presented and argued to the jury on the false premise that the labor of research by an author is protected by copyright.


Does a made-for-television movie dramatizing a crime, infringe upon a copyrighted book depicting an unsuccessful ransom attempt?




The valuable distinction in copyright law between facts and the expression of facts cannot be maintained if research is held to be copyrightable. There is no rational basis for distinguishing between facts and the research involved in obtaining facts. To hold that research is copyrightable is no more or no less than to hold that the facts discovered as a result of research are entitled to copyright protection. Plaintiff argues that extending copyright protection to research would not upset the balance because it would not give the researcher/author a monopoly over the facts but would only ensure that later writers obtain the facts independently or follow the guidelines of fair use if the facts are no longer discoverable. But this is precisely the scope of protection given any copyrighted matter, and the law is clear that facts are not entitled to such protection. Thus, the Court concluded that the district court erred in instructing the jury that research is copyrightable.

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