Court Notes That Empty 'The Office'-Style Workplace Concepts Not Subject To Copyright

from the copyright-needs-to-express-some-creative-work dept

In this age of increasingly aggressive use of intellectual property laws to try to take control over anything a competitor does in the name of competition, it's good to see at least a few judges pushing back. William Patry points us to a fascinating (and somewhat surprising) decision from a Massachusetts district court, involving two firms that produce workplace training manuals full of platitudes about management styles and concepts. One firm accused the other of stealing its ideas in creating its manuals. In fact, the second company was made up of ex-employees from the first company, and they admit to using what they learned at the first company in producing their own manual. However, the judge eloquently points out that these vapid concepts are not protected by copyright:
"These works exemplify the sorts of training programs that serve as fodder for sardonic workplace humor that has given rise to the popular television show The Office and the movie Office Space. They are aggressively vapid-hundreds of pages filled with generalizations, platitudes, and observations of the obvious. While the workbooks' vague character may serve SMS well in the marketplace where it meets the demands of clients in different industries, they lack the “incident” that Judge Hand described as essential for differentiating the works from the underlying ideas. To the extent that the works contain expression, they are largely noncopyrightable because they are devoted to describing a process or because they are not original....

At their creative zenith, these works translate common-sense communication skills into platitudinal business speak. One engaged in the industry might refer to the practice as jargonization. When an noncopyrightable idea is cloaked in a neologism such as "innovision," copyright law permits protection over the cloak, but not the concept or the process it describes."
The judge also notes that it is not illegal for the second firm to have based its work on the first firm's work, since it was not violating its copyright, but merely using the general and unprotected concepts to market its own, different, work:
"[A] defendant may legitimately avoid infringement by intentionally making sufficient changes in a work which would otherwise be regarded as substantially similar to that of the plaintiff's."

For example, presuming Shakespeare's poetry was subject to copyright, an aspiring poet might purchase a collection of his sonnets and select one to serve as the inspiration for her own poem. She might select Sonnet 18 and attempt to emulate the poem's depiction of unwavering beauty by borrowing his iambic pentameter and even a word or short phrase, fully intending to write a poem that will usurp the Bard's virtual monopoly on romantic sonnets and win fame and fortune for herself in the process. The aspiring poet's motives are of no moment so long as the final product is not substantially similar to the original.

In this case, the Court has already found that, like the aspiring poet, Harwood and Moore used SMS's works to create ASP's. Even if they smuggled copies of SMS's programs and poured over them, redlining and rewriting, such "intentional dissimilarity" is permissible."
This is an excellent reminder for those who seem to think that merely using the general concepts of someone else's work to create your own is somehow a violation of their IP rights. Competition in the marketplace is a good thing -- and some of that competition is always going to come from firms copying what the other has done and trying to improve on it. Limiting that competition hurts markets and hurts consumers.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Drunkard, Mar 20th, 2008 @ 10:46pm

    Stupid lawsuit

    Copyright only covers one particular expression of an idea. If you want to own the entire concept you need to get a patent.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2008 @ 10:46pm

    The Best Part:

    "When an noncopyrightable idea is cloaked in a neologism such as "innovision," copyright law permits protection over the cloak, but not the concept or the process it describes."


    I love this Judge! This same argument can be used on everything related to so-called 'Intellectual Property' laws.


    Translating that to a technical issue; the Judge just said that you can have an idea (such as a means to communicate wirelessly) but you can only legally-protect* the specific way YOU do it. If someone does it some other way, that's too bad. They can still do it. After all, they did it noticibly differently (keyword: noticibly).

    * I say this instead of copyright as copyright != patent. The same argument is valid however.

    I guess this should teach all those musicians as well. If someone takes your song, and does it in a different genere (Gym Class Hero's take on that Elton John classic comes to mind) it's possible they're allowed to.

    After all the final product sounds *completely* different, and on paper will look different (barring the lyrics, partly anyways).

    At the very least that beautiful phrase just goes to show that at least some judicial bastards see how stupid recent IP laws have been getting.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Mar 20th, 2008 @ 11:42pm

    "Poured over them"?

    Poured what over them?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Jake, Mar 21st, 2008 @ 12:21am

    On The Other Hand...

    If someone feels the need to claim exclusive intellectual property rights on the ability to talk complete and absolute bollocks, I wish them the very best of luck.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    icon
    Peter Blaise (profile), Mar 21st, 2008 @ 4:47am

    Re: The Best Part:

    No, you cannot take Elton John's music and lyrics and just make the sound different and get away with it, without copyright violation.

    But you can take the underlying ideas - love, suffering, joy, rhythm, percussion, and so on - and write your own vapid songs.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Duval, Mar 21st, 2008 @ 7:03am

    Great Judge but........

    Massachusetts judges aren't known for dispensing quality decisions, but in this case, it seems we have a genuine intelligent judge on the Bar.

    Now if we could just find judges that will stop releasing Level 3 sex offenders back into the communities.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    ehrichweiss, Mar 21st, 2008 @ 7:41am

    Re: On The Other Hand...

    Oh, you're talking about "angrydude". I'm almost surprised he's not here right now spewing how nobody would understand his patent and how The Man is out to get him.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    identicon
    NOTjake, Mar 21st, 2008 @ 7:50am

    I was going to say that...

    On The Other Hand...

    If someone feels the need to claim exclusive intellectual property rights on the ability to talk complete and absolute bollocks, I wish them the very best of luck.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    Jake, Mar 21st, 2008 @ 5:42pm

    Re: On The Other Hand...

    That honestly hadn't occurred to me, Ehrich; I was merely suggesting that if current US patent law cripples the vapid corporate-speak bullshit publications industry, it's done one useful thing.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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