Infringement Claim Fails Because Law Protects Expression, Not Ideas

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The ruling does not break new legal ground, but supports a long-standing legal principle that copyright law protects artistic expression, but not ideas. In the Harney v. Sony Pictures case…

The limits on copyright for unprotected content “is not some unforeseen byproduct of a statutory scheme,” the Supreme Court said. “It is, rather, ‘the essence of copyright,’ and a constitutional requirement. The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but ‘[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts’ [according to the US Constitution]. To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work.”

Read more:PDN.

There Are 10 Comments On This Article.

  1. Good on the court. Imagine a world where you could lock up any gesture, idea, composition, etc behind a legal wall. That’s not a world I want to inhabit nor would society benefit from it.

    • It doesn’t seem that was the issue here. It wasn’t about copying some random “girl on dad’s shoulder” photo. It was about copying a very specific photo of these particular people.

  2. The court ruling that “no reasonable jury could find ‘substantial similarity’ between Sony’s recreated photo and Harney’s original,” reads like Orwellian doublespeak. Sony readily admits that they were copying this particular photograph. The whole point of them using the recreated photo for their tv movie was because it had “substantial similarity” to the original. Although it sounds like the paper that Harney was working for was as much to blame for misuse of his photo as Sony.

  3. @mw: but they did not copy the creative elements. The lighting, the angle, the coloring, the crop, etc. are all different.

    It is permissible under copyright law to copy what is not protected by copyright, which is what it appears Sony did and the court affirmed today.

    We cannot copyright reality, only the creative decisions we make in how to show it.

    • I’m not even really disagreeing with that idea in theory; I’m just saying that this specific case seems to be way more complex than that. I’m hard pressed to think of any comparable example, but if I were a photographer working for a newspaper, and one of my photos became the visual centerpiece of a big news story, and then that photo was later recreated for a film production, then I would definitely be questioning their right to do that without credit and/or compensation too.

      I just found the court’s wording about no “substantial similarity” being found to be very odd, considering that Sony fully intended there to be a substantial similarity between the photos. That was the entire point of recreating the photo in the first place.

      • I can see this happening in any kind of ‘true crime’ or historical fiction where the events depicted were filmed to make reference to a (possibly well-known) photograph from that period.

        I would think it would be hard to call this kind of reference infringement, nor should it be. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idea-expression_divide

        The analogy of “reporting a person’s fall from a bus: the first person to do so could not use the law of copyright to stop other people from announcing this fact.” applies here. You can’t stop someone from filming a girl on a man’s shoulders because you already have such a photo.

        Also, “substantial similarity” is a legal term. Even though the film clearly references the photograph, it doesn’t violate due to parts that were similar are not copyrightable.

        • I feel like we’re not talking about the same case. Sony didn’t do a filmed recreation of the photo; they did a photographic recreation of the photo. So your example of a true crime film where “the events depicted were filmed to make reference to a (possibly well-known) photograph from that period” is not analogous to this situation. That’s not what happened here.

          Also, your comment that “you can’t stop someone from filming a girl on a man’s shoulders because you already have such a photo” is exactly right. But that’s also not what’s happened in this case. Your initial comment about locking up the rights to a gesture, idea, composition, etc. is also off the mark. That’s not at all what was at stake here. Harney isn’t some random person who happened to have a similar picture of a father and daughter sitting in his drawer. Sony admittedly set out to recreate this specific photo that Harney had taken. That doesn’t open the door for every other schmuck with shot of a kid on dad’s shoulders to file a suit against Sony.

          A recent situation that might be considered as a similar example would be if a studio were to make a tv movie about John McAfee and they recreated the Vice Magazine photo that revealed his location in Guatemala. Now this photo is central to the story, and the original photographer presumably has a terms of use contract with Vice. So then the question is, do the movie producers owe any compensation to the original photographer? That doesn’t seem to be the question that the courts chose to address. They were more concerned about whether the background trees had leaves on them or not. I just think the whole approach was bizarre because the judgement completely ignored what made this particular case unique.

          • Actually it doesn’t matter if it was filmed vs a still photograph… one can bring infringement claims across mediums. Books that influence films have before – and usually lost.

            It’s quite difficult to prove infringement based on content unless they straight up copy the actual image in virtually every way. Changes like the lighting, leaves instead of a church, do in fact make it different.

            The reasoning behind it is this: Copyright law is to promote the advancement of the “useful arts” and ideas while protecting laborious expressions by people from being copied and profited upon by others. Making changes to an idea – even minor – is an advancement on an idea and thus constitutes a different expression.

            Society would be much worse off if others were not allowed to take an idea I had and build on it.

            That’s the general reason why it is, and should be, allowed.