Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc.
499 U.S. 340 (1991)
Rural was a telephone company
in Kansas. They were required by State law to give away phone books, and
they made money by selling ads in their Yellow Pages.
Rural was a legal monopoly,
which meant that no one else could provide local telephone service within
Feist was in the business of
making phone books. They had a book that contained all of Rural's area
plus the areas of 11 other phone companies. They also made money by
selling ads in their Yellow Pages.
Rural got their white pages
information by looking at their own customer records. Feist didn't have
that option, since they weren't a phone company. They approached all 12
telephone companies and asked to pay for the right to use their white
pages listings. Rural refused.
Feist got a copy of Rural's
directory and copied the information out of it.
Feist enhanced their
directory by adding street addresses, which Rural didn't have in their
Rural learned that Feist was
using Rural's data and sued for copyright infringement.
Interesting, Rural learned
of the copying because phone companies include a few fictional persons
into their phone books to detect if someone is copying them!
The Trial Court found for
Rural. Feist appealed.
Feist argued that it was
economically impractical to travel door-to-door to collect the
Plus, Feist argued that
phone numbers are just facts, and facts aren't copyrightable.
Rural argued that compilations of facts are copyrightable.
The Appellate Court affirmed.
The US Supreme Court reversed.
The US Supreme Court
rejected the idea that a compilation
copyrightable just because the author put effort into building the compilation.
aka the sweat of the
See International News
Service v. Associated Press (248
U.S. 215 (1918)).
The Court found that facts
are not copyrightable, but compilations of facts might be, if the author chooses which facts to include
and how to arrange the data. That satisfied the requirement for originality.
Basically, if you select or
arrange the facts in an original way, you can copyright that original
However, the facts
themselves are not copyrightable, so the only thing Rural could
copyright is the original selection and arrangement of facts.
The Court found that Rural
had done no real selection or arrangement in their phone book. Therefore
Rural's directory was not copyrightable.
Rural's phone book was
"not only unoriginal, it was practical inevitable." All they
did was put the names in alphabetical order. What other way could they
have done it?
Copyright is intended to
award "originality, not effort."
On the other hand, the Court
found that although Feist copied the numbers out of Rural's phone book,
they merged it with other data and changed the selection and arrangement,
so it became original.
17 U.S.C. §102(a) identifies three elements to qualify as a
The collection and assembly
of preexisting material, facts or data.
The selection, coordination,
or arrangement of those materials.
The creation, by virtue of
the particular selection of an 'original' work of authorship.