Dastar Corp. v Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.
539 U.S. 23 (2003)
General Eisenhower wrote a
book about his experiences in WWII. The book was published by Doubleday,
and Fox bought the rights to turn it into a tv miniseries, which they
Doubleday renewed the
copyright to the book, but Fox allowed the copyright on the tv miniseries
to expire, and it entered the public domain.
Dastar obtained a copy of the
tv miniseries. They re-edited the episodes, change the titles, removed
Fox's credits, and added their own credits. Then they sold videotapes of
the edited episodes.
Fox sued for copyright
Dastar argued that the tv
miniseries was in the public domain, so Fox had no rights to control what
happened to it.
Fox argued that when Dastar
released copies without proper credit, that couldn't as "reverse
passing off" and violated the Latham Act (15 U.S.C. §1125(a)), which prevents someone from making a
representation of a product that, even though technically true, creates a
false impression of the product's origin.
The Trial Court found for Fox.
The Appellate Court affirmed.
The US Supreme Court reversed.
The US Supreme Court found
that Latham Act only referred to
physical goods themselves, not to the 'idea' of goods.
Basically, you can't
physically rip the cover off of a book and add your own cover to it, but
you can republish a work in the public domain without giving credit to
the original author.
The Court found that Fox's
argument would imply that the Latham Act gave copyright holders an interest in their work that lasted
forever. That violated the Constitutional provision that copyrights and
patents could only be for a limited time.
See the Intellectual
Property Clause (Art. 1, §8, cl.