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 their area.
  • 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 directory.
  • 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 information.
    • 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. Feist appealed.
  • 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 brow approach.
      • 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 selection/arrangement.
      • 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 copyrightable compilation:
    • 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.