from the or-something-like-that dept
Okay fine, CBS hasn't sued "the public domain" — but at this point I suspect that's only because they haven't figured out how to do so. In the mean time, they're suing a YouTube channel for copyright infringement after it posted sixteen public domain episodes of the Andy Griffith show. How, you ask? Isn't the public domain the, uh, public domain? Apparently not if you get creative with your lawsuit:
The episodes at issue in the suit fell into the public domain in the '90s because the copyright-renewal application was rejected for being filed too late and, according to the suit, that's one of the reasons Heldman thinks his posting them was legitimate.
... CBS attorney Jonathan Zavin argues that, because CBS holds valid and existing copyrights for the first 79 episodes of the series, the "copyrighted characters and numerous other original creative elements" that appeared in those episodes would still be protected in the middle episodes.
"Accordingly, the newly-added elements, and only the newly-added elements, of these Middle Episodes which did not previously appear in the first 79 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show (which remain protected by statutory copyright) have fallen into the public domain in the United States," he writes.
This is of course not the first time we've seen such an attempt to nibble (or chomp) away at the edges of the public domain. Other examples include the high-profile fight over Sherlock Holmes, and the recent loss over Wizard Of Oz promotional materials. But each is subtly different, and together they form a trifecta that snuffs out giant swathes of the public domain.
In the case of Sherlock Holmes, we've got the rule that early works falling into the public domain can be freely used, but if you're building on them or adapting them, you can't incorporate character traits or story points from later works that are still under copyright. While this still raises a huge host of "perpetual copyright" concerns, at its core it seems... somewhat reasonable. The Wizard Of Oz situation is similar, stemming from the idea that just because some materials from the film have fallen into the public domain doesn't mean everything else is fair game. But, it pushed the borders: the court didn't simply say that building on the public domain material with other still-copyrighted material from the film becomes infringing, but that building on it with anything or changing it in any way makes it infringing.
Those two rulings already represent pretty big victories for public domain haters, but you'll notice they are missing something. In both cases the courts, despite constraining the public domain in extreme ways, had to concede that just directly publishing the unaltered public domain material itself — the early Holmes stories, or the unregistered publicity materials from Oz — is not infringing. How could it be? They are public domain.
So along comes this new lawsuit, attempting to put another nail in the coffin. The episodes posted on YouTube weren't somehow expanded to draw upon material from other episodes, or for that matter from anywhere else. They were public domain material being posted in full online. And now CBS wants the court to say that's infringing because other episodes of the show are still under copyright, and that even though these 16 are in the public domain, they still count as derivative works of previous episodes. So, magically, posting public domain material to YouTube — something that should be completely and inarguably legal — becomes unauthorized distribution of a derivative work.
It gets crazier, too. You might think CBS would be satisfied pushing this theory on the basis that the episodes infringe on the very first episode, or perhaps a select handful that establish recurring characters and themes. Nope! The lawsuit claims that the 16 public domain episodes are derivative works of each of the 79 still-copyrighted episodes, individually. They are asking for nearly $12-million dollars — the maximum statutory damages per work infringed, multiplied by all 79 episodes.
Let that sink in.
And so once again we see the utter collapse of the idea/expression dichotomy. Copyright is supposed to apply to the fixed expression of an idea — such as each individual episode of a show, and the scripts and other materials underlying it. But if we slide the dividing line over a bit and say that "the character of Andy Griffith" or "the town of Mayberry" count as fixed expressions, then we have an absurd situation where basically nothing related to the show can be public domain until everything is (a day or two before forever, most likely). If we slide it further and say that one expression of those ideas can infringe on every single other expression of them individually, then I don't even have the words for how broken the system has become. It's a perversion of the entire idea of the public domain, and an utter betrayal of the already-lopsided contract that is copyright.
With any luck, the judge will reject this nonsense. So far, despite being pretty cooperative with the demands of rightsholders, courts have stopped short of saying "you cannot publish that public domain material at all", because even the most copyright-friendly judge seems to recognize that's a bridge too far. But even if CBS doesn't get all their wishes, I won't be surprised if the eventual ruling continues to chip away at the public domain, delineating new restrictions that have no reason to exist or planting landmines of legal language that will be unwittingly detonated by some future public domain miner.
But hey that's all secondary — the important thing is making sure nobody gets to watch sixteen episodes of a half-century-old TV show for free, right?