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Wright v. Warner Books, Inc. - 953 F.2d 731 (2d Cir. 1991)


The Copyright Act permits even original expression to be appropriated in certain circumstances. 17 U.S.C.S. § 107 states that the "fair use" of a copyrighted work does not infringe the copyright in that work. Whether use of copyrightable expression is fair is determined on a case-by-case basis within the context of the four non-exclusive factors enumerated in § 107.


Plaintiff, Ellen Wright, held the copyrights in the published and unpublished works of her deceased husband, African-American author Richard Wright. Richard Wright’s acquaintance, Dr. Margaret Walker wrote a biography of the decedent using excerpts from deceased’s published and unpublished works. Over plaintiff’s objections, defendant Warner Books, Inc. published the biography in November 1988. Consequently, plaintiff brought an action against the defendants, challenging the biography’s use of portions of a wide range of Richard Wright’s works. Plaintiff claimed she was entitled to damages for copyright infringement, false designation of origin, breach of a manuscript access agreement between Yale University and Dr. Walker of which agreement plaintiff claimed to be a third-party beneficiary, and libel. She also sought a permanent injunction prohibiting further publication and distribution of the biography. After discovery was completed, plaintiff moved for summary judgment on the copyright claims. Defendants thereafter cross-moved for summary judgment on all counts in the complaint. Finding no material factual disputes, the district court held that the four fair use factors enumerated in 17 U.S.C. § 107 all favored defendants and granted summary judgment in their favor on the copyright claim. The court dismissed plaintiff's request for a permanent injunction and her claim that the biography's use of Wright's journals constituted a breach of a research agreement between Dr. Walker and Yale University's Beinecke Library. Plaintiff voluntarily withdrew her claim of false designation of origin. The court dismissed without prejudice the state law libel claim for lack of jurisdiction. On appeal, plaintiff abandoned most of her original claims; however, two of her original claims remain: (i) the biography's use of the unpublished Wright/Walker letters and allegedly unpublished journal entries constitutes infringement, and (ii) the biography's use of the journal entries violates Dr. Walker's research agreement with Yale University.


In plaintiff copyright owner's action alleging copyright infringement and breach of contract, where defendants offered a fair use defense under the Copyright Act, did the defendants' sparing use in scholarly journals of creative expression from the unpublished letters and journals of the late author Richard Wright constitute fair use as a matter of law?




The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the order granting summary judgment to defendant author because appropriation of insubstantial amounts of unpublished journals and letters for use in scholarly work that did not significantly impair potential value of source material fell within the fair use exception to copyright law. The Court found that the excerpts, though unpublished and entitled to a narrower reading of fair use, were employed by Dr. Walker in a scholarly work. The Court determined that the excerpts represented an insubstantial, non-core portion of the decedent's works. The Court also found that the biography did not pose a significant threat to the potential market for the decedent’s works because Dr. Walker appropriated marginal amounts of expressive content from these, which represented only a small, unfeatured portion of the biography.

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