Protection granted to the creator of an original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression that confers the exclusive right to make copies, create derivative works, distribute, display, or perform the work publicly.

Concerned that a copyright might perpetuate an undesirable monopoly, the Supreme Court carefully interpreted the copyright statute. In Wheaton v. Peters[case]Wheaton v. Peters[Wheaton v. Peters] (1834), the Court stated that a copyright of limited duration is in the public interest, and in Baker v. Selden[case]Baker v. Selden[Baker v. Selden] (1879), it held that only the original expression of an idea is copyrightable, not the idea itself. Likewise, in Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Co.[case]Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Co.[Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Co.] (1991), the Court decided that copyright does not protect facts unless their selection or arrangement is original.

Although the statute permits certain fair use without the owner’s permission, the tension between the owner’s rights and the public interest remains. When an otherwise infringing work is alleged to be a parody of the original work, the Court has sought to ensure that the market for the owner’s original work is not displaced by the parody. Similarly, the Court has determined the owner’s exclusive right to publish the work may outweigh another’s claim of fair use when the part of the work used, even if minimal, is the heart of the entire work.

Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Co.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell

McLean, John


Reporters, Supreme Court