What do Courts Say?

There are several cases that can possibly create a precedent for deciding online disputes among fan sites and owners of copyright in popular shows. For example, in Paramount Pictures v. Carol Publishing, a federal district court in New York issued an injunction against publication and distribution of a book wrote by a devoted Star Trek fan, Sam Ramer. Several chapters of the book contained a detailed description of 222 Star Trek episodes and eight Star Trek movies. The court reasoned that the book, The Joy of Trek, copied the “heart” of the Star Trek shows by quoting phrases such as “Live Long and Prosper” and “Make It So,” and by retelling essential elements of the screenplays. The court rejected Ramer's fair use defense by pointing that his book was not a “transformative use” of the Star Trek stories and invaded Paramount's potential market for derivative works.

In Castle Rock Entertainment v. Carol Publishing Co., the Second Circuit court found that the Sienfield trivia quiz book, which tested readers' recollection of the show, violated exclusive rights of the show's producers. The court held that “facts” of the show were protected original expression because they owed their origin to the act of authorship. According to the court, producers of the show may want to issue a similar trivia book in the future, in which case an unauthorized trivia quiz book would directly interfere with this right.

Paramount and Castle Rock cases set a troublesome precedent for online activities of fans. First, the courts held that recounting or retelling of “facts” from television series constituted violation of copyright law because these “facts” constituted protected original expression. Second, the courts rejected the fair use defenses on the ground that fan books invaded the potential market for future derivative works.

In Playboy Enterprises v. Webbworld, the adult magazine's publishers successfully enforced their rights to exclusive use of Playboy and Playmate photographs on the Internet. The defendants, operators of an adult web site, argued that they did not violate Playboy's copyright because they did not make copies of pictures themselves. Instead, they took Playboy photographs from online adult newsgroups where they had been uploaded by other users. However, the court decided that the fact that photographs were publicly available on the Internet did not place them in the public domain. The court concluded that Webbworld operators willfully violated Playboy's exclusive rights to reproduction and distribution of images from their magazines.

This means that simply because something is available on the Internet does not mean that it is open to copying, reproduction, downloading or other unauthorized use. If copyright owners spot your unauthorized use of their protected material, the chances are your site will be taken off-line and you may be sued.

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