Eighth Circuit Holds that Use of Public Domain Material Infringes Film Copyright
By Michael Hoven – Edited by Esther Kang
Warner Bros. Entm’t v. X One X Productions, No. 10-1743 (8th Cir. July 5, 2011)
The Eighth Circuit unanimously affirmed in part and reversed in part a decision by the Eastern District of Missouri, which had granted summary judgment to Warner Bros. on its copyright infringement claim and issued a permanent injunction prohibiting defendants (collectively “AVELA”) from licensing images from publicity materials for The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and short films featuring Tom & Jerry. The Eight Circuit remanded the case for modification of the injunction in light of their decision.
The Eighth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Warner Bros. with regard to AVELA’s reproduction of publicity images, holding that the publicity materials were in the public domain. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to Warner Bros. and the permanent injunction prohibiting AVELA’s production of items that evoked copyrightable aspects of the film characters, even when the products featured only images and text extracted from the public domain. In so holding, the court noted that the public’s right to use and modify public domain materials ends when it conflicts with an existing copyright. Because the “increments of expression” that a film adds to a public domain character are copyrightable, a combination of materials that do not independently infringe copyright—such as public domain extracts—may nonetheless infringe on an expressive element of that character that is protected under the film’s copyright.
PIT IP Tech Blog provides an overview of the case. Techdirt criticizes the decision for its expansion of copyright protection at the expense of the public domain. Copyright Litigation Blog questions whether other circuits or the Supreme Court will follow the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning and asserts that modifications of public domain material will fuel litigation in coming years. (more…)