From Jane Friedman:
Jack Ryan, the analytical, yet charming CIA analyst, made an appearance in federal court in Maryland earlier this year. The heirs to Tom Clancy’s literary legacy are fighting over him. Unlike in the movies, he’s not in a great position to fight back.
It all started when Clancy signed the publishing deal for The Hunt for Red October where Jack Ryan made his debut in 1984. In a departure from common practice, Clancy transferred his copyright in Red October to the publisher. A few years later, Clancy realized his mistake and was able to negotiate return of the copyright for the book. He immediately transferred the reverted copyright to his company.
Here’s the crux of the current court battle: When Clancy mistakenly transferred his copyright in the book Red October to the original publisher, did the copyright to the character Jack Ryan go with it? Or did Clancy retain the character copyright? In normal practice, the sale of the right to publish a copyrighted story does not stop the author from using its characters in future works.
If Clancy retained the rights to the character when he signed the initial publishing contract, then the rights that reverted from the publisher would not have included the copyright for the character. The reverted rights Clancy turned around and transferred into his company would not have included the character rights. All of which means that the character, Jack Ryan, is part of Clancy’s estate and not controlled by the company he set up.
Jack Ryan is a valuable character with his own copyright separate from the copyright in the book. Everybody concerned, the owners of the company and the heirs to the estate, wants a piece of him, or all of him. And it’s not clear where Mr. Ryan currently resides.
Fictional characters are not listed in the copyright statute as a separate class of protectable work. There’s no application at the Copyright Office for them. But over the years, the law on character protection has evolved.
. . . .
This is important because characters with independent copyright can be licensed separately from the stories in which they originally appeared. It’s another way for authors to divide their rights to create multiple income streams. That’s the beauty of copyright. It’s divisible. An author can keep some rights and license others. It’s what Clancy did and his company/estate is still doing with the Jack Ryan franchise.
Not every character can be protected by copyright. Stock characters cannot be protected—a drunken old bum, a slippery snake oil salesman, a hooker with a heart of gold, a wicked stepmother, a gypsy fortune teller, and so on. They are essentially ideas for characters, vague and lightly sketched. Copyright does not give anyone a monopoly on ideas. Protecting stock characters would prevent as yet untold stories from being told. Depriving the world of new stories is exactly the opposite of what copyright is intended to promote—the creation of more stories, more art.
. . . .
Public domain characters cannot be protected
But new characters created from public domain works can be protected. Consider Enola Holmes, the younger sister of Sherlock. The Sherlock Holmes stories have been slipping into the public domain for years now, to the chagrin of the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle. The creative elements of Sherlock Holmes stories that are in the public domain can be used by others to build new stories.
Enola Holmes was introduced to readers in a series of young adult books written by Nancy Springer. Enola does not exist in the Conan Doyle canon; she was created by Springer. She has distinctive traits (high intelligence, keen observational skills and insight, skills in archery, fencing, and martial arts, an independent thinker who defies Victorian norms for women) that combine to make her well delineated and protectable.
. . . .
The “well delineated character” is the most widely accepted legal test used to decide whether a fictional character is protected by copyright, but it is not the only one. The other is “the story being told” test. Sam Spade is responsible for this test.
Dashiell Hammett created Sam Spade when he wrote The Maltese Falcon. Hammett licensed the exclusive rights to use the book in movies, radio, and television to Warner Brothers. Hammett later wrote other stories with Sam Spade. Warner Bros. complained that it owned exclusive rights to the character and Hammett couldn’t write about him anymore.
Ironically, the court protected Hammett’s right as the creator to use Sam Spade in future stories by deciding that the character was not protected by copyright. Sam Spade is just a vehicle for telling the story and is not the story itself. He is the chessman in the game of telling the story. It was the story that was licensed to Warner Bros., not the chessman.
A character is protected under the “story being told” test when he dominates the story in a way that there would be no story without him. This test sets a high bar for character protection. To protect the character, the story would essentially have to be a character study. The Maltese Falcon is not a character study of Sam Spade.
An example of character protection using the “story being told test” is the Rocky franchise. A screenwriter wrote a story on spec using the characters Rocky, Adrian, Apollo Creed, and Paulie. The work was considered to be an infringing use of the characters. The characters were protected because the movies focused on the characters and their relationships, not on intricate plot or story lines. The characters were the story being told. The writer could not avoid the infringement touchpoint of substantial similarity when he took the characters and used them in a new storyline.
Link to the rest at Jane Friedman
PG is not entirely satisfied with the OP.
He’ll provide a couple of additional items to demonstrate that court cases aren’t quite as definitive as non-lawyers might conclude from reading the OP. After the lengthy excerpts below, PG will briefly share a couple of his practical thoughts way down at the end.
Copyright designs found weak when derived from common ideas
From Thompson Coburn LLP:
The well-known song says, “a kiss is just a kiss,” but the Ninth Circuit says that some kisses are “thin” and some are “broad,” and on that your copyright lawyer can rely. As time goes by.
The court got into analyzing kisses through a case, Sophia & Chloe v. Brighton Collectibles, involving designs of “Buddha’s Kiss” earrings. A Buddha’s Kiss earring has three elements: a teardrop-shaped earring, the henna symbol for the word “kiss,” and the image of the Buddha. As you might expect, the producer of one Buddha’s Kiss earring sued the producer of another, claiming copyright infringement.
Each of the parties’ earrings contained those three elements. But was that similarity enough to prove copyright infringement? The court said it wasn’t. Because every Buddha’s Kiss earring must contain those three elements, that means that the combination of those three elements is the “idea” of the earring. And copyright law does not protect ideas, but merely particular creative expressions of ideas.
Normally, two different creative expressions are analyzed under a “substantial similarity” test. But the Ninth Circuit held that because there were only a few ways to combine the three essential elements of a Buddha’s Kiss, infringement can be found only if the two designs are “virtually identical.”
Link to the rest at Thompson Coburn LLP
Basics of Copyright
From The Office of General Counsel, Harvard University:
What does copyright protect?
Copyright does not protect ideas, nor does it protect facts. It protects only the form in which ideas or facts are expressed. For example, you may read a copyrighted paper and appropriate its ideas, or facts it conveys, into your own work without violating the copyright. However, you may not reproduce the actual text of the paper (unless fair use or another exception to copyright protection applies), nor may you evade this prohibition simply by changing some words or thoroughly paraphrasing the content.
What does a copyright authorize the copyright owner to do, or to restrict others from doing?
Subject to certain limitations, a copyright owner has the exclusive right to:
- reproduce the work by making copies of it;
- distribute copies of the work to the public by sale, donation, rental, or lending;
- prepare new works derived from the original (for example, a novel adapted into a play, or a translation, or a musical arrangement); and
- publicly perform or display the work.
. . . .
What is “fair use”?
Fair use is the right to use a copyrighted work under certain conditions without permission of the copyright owner. The doctrine helps prevent a rigid application of copyright law that would stifle the very creativity the law is designed to foster. It allows one to use and build upon prior works in a manner that does not unfairly deprive prior copyright owners of the right to control and benefit from their works. Together with other features of copyright law like the idea/expression dichotomy discussed above, fair use reconciles the copyright statute with the First Amendment.
What is the test for fair use?
The fair use defense is now codified in Section 107 of the Copyright Act. The statutory formulation is intended to carry forward the fair use doctrine long recognized by the courts. The statute provides that fair use of a work “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use, scholarship, or research)” is not an infringement of copyright. To determine whether a given use is fair use, the statute directs, one must consider the following four factors:
- the purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
- the nature of the copyrighted work;
- the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
- the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
These factors are not exclusive, but are the primary—and in many cases the only—factors courts examine. The following questions consider each of these four factors in turn.
What considerations are relevant in applying the first fair use factor—the purpose and character of the use?
One important consideration is whether the use in question advances a socially beneficial activity like those listed in the statute: criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. Other important considerations are whether the use is commercial or noncommercial and whether the use is “transformative.”
Noncommercial use is more likely to be deemed fair use than commercial use, and the statute expressly contrasts nonprofit educational purposes with commercial ones. However, uses made at or by a nonprofit educational institution may be deemed commercial if they are profit-making.
In recent years, the courts have focused increasingly on whether the use in question is “transformative.” A work is transformative if, in the words of the Supreme Court, it “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning or message.” Use of a quotation from an earlier work in a critical essay to illustrate the essayist’s argument is a classic example of transformative use. A use that supplants or substitutes for the original work is less likely to be deemed fair use than one that makes a new contribution and thus furthers the goal of copyright, to promote science and the arts. To quote the Supreme Court again, transformative works “lie at the heart of the fair use doctrine’s guarantee of breathing space within the confines of copyright.”
Courts have also recognized, however, that non-transformative uses may be socially beneficial, and that a use does not have to be transformative to support a finding of fair use. The Supreme Court has cited reproduction of multiple copies for classroom distribution as the most obvious example of a non-transformative use that may be permitted as fair use in appropriate circumstances. The Court’s emphasis on whether a use is transformative, however, makes it difficult to know how to weigh uses that are for non-profit educational purposes but are also non-transformative. In addition, it could be argued in some circumstances that verbatim copying of a work for classroom use is “transformative,” in that (to quote from the Court’s definition) the instructor is adding “something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning or message” in the course of presenting the material.
Other factors that sometimes weigh in the analysis of the first fair use factor include whether the use in question is a reasonable and customary practice and whether the putative fair user has acted in bad faith or denied credit to the author of the copyrighted work.
What considerations are relevant in applying the second fair use factor—the nature of the copyrighted work?
The two main considerations are whether the work is published or unpublished and how creative the work is. Unpublished works are accorded more protection than published ones, as the author has a strong right to determine whether and when his or her work will be made public. The fact that a previously published work is out of print may tend to favor fair use, since the work is not otherwise available.
Works that are factual and less creative are more susceptible of fair use than imaginative and highly creative works. This is in keeping with the general principle that copyright protects expression rather than ideas or facts.
However, the second factor is typically the least important of the fair use factors.
What considerations are relevant in applying the third fair use factor—the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole?
Courts have taken both a quantitative and a qualitative approach in assessing the impact on the fair use analysis of the amount and substantiality of the portion used. What percentage of the original work has been used? There are no bright lines, but the higher the percentage, the more likely this factor is to weigh against fair use.
Even if the percentage is fairly small, however, if the material used is qualitatively very important, this factor may weigh against fair use. Thus, for example, in a case in which The Nation magazine published excerpts, totaling only 300–400 words of verbatim quotes, from Gerald Ford’s forthcoming book-length memoir, the Supreme Court held that the third factor weighed against fair use, because the excerpts included Ford’s discussion of his pardon of Nixon and other central passages that the court found to be the “heart” of the work.
Also important in applying the third factor is the nexus between the purpose of the fair use and the portion of the copyrighted work taken. The extent of permissible copying varies with the purpose and character of the use. Taking more of the copyrighted work than is necessary to accomplish the fair user’s salutary purpose will weigh against fair use. In some cases, the fact that the entire work—for example, an image—was needed to accomplish the fair use purpose has led the court to hold that the third factor was neutral, favoring neither the copyright holder nor the putative fair user.
What considerations are relevant in applying the fourth fair use factor—the effect upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work?
Use that adversely affects the market for the copyrighted work is less likely to be a fair use. This ties back to the first factor, and the question whether the putative fair use supplants or substitutes for the copyrighted work. The fact that a use results in lost sales to the copyright owner will weigh against fair use. Moreover, courts have instructed that one must look at the likely impact on the market should the use in question become widespread; the fourth factor may weigh against fair use even if little market harm has yet occurred.
This inquiry is not confined to the market for the original, but also takes into account derivative markets. For example, if a novel were made into a movie, the movie might not harm sales of the book—indeed, it might help them—but the harm to the derivative market for movie rights would count against fair use. This principle works in a straightforward way in the case of well-established markets, like the market for movie rights for a novel. But it becomes much more difficult to apply if there is not an established market. Consistent with the statutory language, courts have also looked at whether there is harm to a “potential market” for the copyrighted work. However, if there were deemed to be a “potential market” for every use asserted to be a fair use, then the fourth factor would always favor the copyright owner, since the copyright owner would be harmed by loss of the licensing fee for that use. One way courts have tried to avoid this circularity is by asking whether a market, if not already established, is “reasonable” or likely to be developed by copyright owners. In keeping with this approach, courts have concluded that there is no protectible market for criticism or parody, but have considered evidence of harm to markets under development or viewed as attractive opportunities for copyright owners, such as the market for downloads of songs. In some cases, courts have indicated that the absence of a workable market will tend to favor the fair user on the fourth factor because there is no efficient means to buy permission for the use in question.
This is a difficult and evolving area of the law. We can nevertheless venture a few generalizations: Uses that substitute for the copyrighted work in its original market or an established derivative market generally cause market harm that is cognizable under the fourth factor. Where there is no established market, harm is less likely to be found, but still may be found depending on the facts, especially if the fair use case under the other factors is weak and the “market” in question is under development by copyright owners or obviously attractive commercially. In any case, the Supreme Court has said, market harm is a matter of degree, and the importance of the fourth factor will vary, not only with the amount of harm, but also with the relative strength of the showing on the other factors.
How should one weigh the various factors in arriving at a determination whether there is fair use?
The fair use test requires an assessment of all the factors together. The courts have repeatedly emphasized that there are no bright line rules, and that each case must be decided on its own facts. The factors often interact in the analysis. For example, the Supreme Court has stated that the more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism, that may weigh against a finding of fair use. The more transformative the secondary use, the less likely it is that the secondary use will substitute for the original and cause direct market harm. In reaching a fair use determination, all of the factors should be explored, and the results weighed together, in light of the goal of copyright law to “promote the progress of science and useful arts” (U.S. Const., art. I, § 8, cl. 8).
To understand better how courts have applied the fair use test in different situations, you may find useful the summaries of selected fair use cases at http://fairuse.stanford.edu/Copyright_and_Fair_Use_Overview/chapter9/9-c.html. In addition, the U.S. Copyright Office maintains a Fair Use Index, which offers a searchable database of selected judicial decisions involving fair use, together with brief summaries: http://copyright.gov/fair-use/.
Link to the rest at The Office of General Counsel, Harvard University
PG will note that the General Counsel of Harvard, like a great many other general counsels, almost certainly prefers a quiet life to one filled with ground-breaking copyright infringement lawsuits.
PG’s bottom line on the subject of the OP is that it uses a couple of cases he regards as outliers to support a conclusion that PG thinks is presented as a more settled matter of law than it actually is.
From a practical standpoint for a non-multi-millionaire author, here are a few thoughts.
Lawyers (or some lawyers) have a general rule that some call the “Pig Test.”
Basically, the Pig Test says don’t try to push right up to the very edge of the boundary between being sued and a quiet life. Don’t try to eat too much in that part of the legal and ethical world.
Don’t call your character Jack Ryan unless he’s an elf who lives in a magical wood filled with fairies and unicorns. Don’t call him Frodo if he does.
Don’t call your character Jane Ryan if she works for the CIA and engages in international intrigue to defeat the former Soviet Union or the Chinese Communists.
Don’t paraphrase paragraphs of action sequences in a book with the assistance of a Thesaurus.
The wealthier the author and the more books she/he has sold, the more cautious you should be about even permissible borrowing of details, settings, characters, etc. Ms. Rowling has publishers, agents, lawyers, readers, etc., looking for that sort of thing.
For most authors, just being sued is more punishment in both the financial and massive distraction arenas than is good for their creative output, even if they eventually prevail in court.