Copyright Scholars Urge Reversal in SAS v. WPL

Fundamental copyright doctrines and procedures are presently on trial in the case of SAS Institute v. World Programming Limited, now on appeal at the Federal Circuit. Suffice to say, U.S. software developer SAS alleges copyright infringement by UK developer WPL, and these entities have been litigating on both sides of the pond for many years. But it almost doesn’t matter, for the purposes of this post, which entity ultimately deserves to prevail on the actual merits. Because according to a brief filed by ten copyright scholars, the district court in the Fifth Circuit bollixed up procedure and doctrine so badly that, if allowed to stand, the ruling would be harmful to copyright creators everywhere. And, as usual, the precedent would be highly prejudicial to small business and independent authors who are always at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the cost of enforcement of their rights.

At issue is one matter of settled copyright doctrine and one matter of settled court procedure, both of which the SAS court in Texas undermined with an unprecedented procedure of its own that it called a “Copyrightability Hearing,” which the scholars’ brief describes as “foreign to copyright law and threatens to impose additional costs and burdens on parties, moving the costs of vindicating their rights further out of reach for many creators and copyright owners.”

Doctrine: Unprotectable Elements Do Not Deprive Whole Works of Protection

It is axiomatic that nearly all copyrightable works contain unprotectable elements. For instance, the scholars’ brief cites nonfiction books as an archetypal subject matter that is unquestionably granted protection as whole works, despite comprising many facts, which are unprotectable. But to further illustrate the point, I would note that the average motion picture or TV series contains hundreds, if not thousands, of protectable elements intermingled with unprotectable elements.

In fact, the motion picture industry thrives on copyright’s limiting doctrines like the idea/expression dichotomy, merger, short phrases, and scènes-à-faire. Consequently, no filmmaker gets an exclusive to produce scenes depicting heroes running with guns or that first kiss as the music swells and the camera adjusts to reveal a romantic setting. But these limitations do not obviate copyright attaching to each motion picture as a whole work, or even segments of each film as original expressions of common ideas, themes, tropes, etc.

Now, imagine a trial in which the filmmaker alleges copyright infringement of a whole movie, or a substantial portion of the movie, but the defendant argues, “Well, the motion picture is full of unprotectable elements and is, therefore, deprived of all protection as a complete work.” Because that is essentially what WPL argued in its lawsuit with SAS, and the district court agreed, thus, upending doctrine by voiding copyright in the entire work. As the amici state:

The Court’s stated basis for rebutting the presumption of validity and holding the SAS copyrights invalid, i.e., that “at least some of the material is not entitled to protection,” is not only wrong, it is exactly the opposite of the correct standard. [Citation omitted]

I use the motion picture example to emphasize the point that if the only response required of a defendant were to recite a litany (as WPL apparently did in this case) of copyright doctrines  under which elements of a work may be unprotected,[1] much as I did a couple of paragraphs ago, in order to shift the burden to the plaintiff to re-prove protectability, that way lies madness. For instance, I happened to watch the new Suicide Squad this weekend and, even as a non-attorney, I could probably do ten pages or so breaking down the protectable and unprotectable elements just in Harley Quinn’s solo fight sequence.

But hypothetically placing the burden on the film’s producers to engage in such an exercise would be anathema to more than a century of legal doctrine and decades of court procedure. Yet, that is precisely what the court did in SAS when it found that, in general, the work at issue contained unprotectable elements and, therefore, the plaintiff bears the burden to re-prove copyrightability in that which is allegedly protectable.

Procedure:  Registration as Proof of a Valid Copyright

So, it is settled law that copyrightable works may comprise even large volumes of non-protectable elements and still meet the standard of originality for protection. Moreover, once a copyright application is approved, a certificate of registration issued by the Copyright Office is considered prima facie evidence of a valid copyright as a matter of law. In fact, the efficiency of this longstanding precedent is one of the key incentives to authors provided by Congress (in §410(c) of the copyright act) to register their works with the USCO. Here, the scholars’ brief argues that by shifting the burden to the plaintiff to re-prove copyright in its work, the district court has disturbed a presumption of copyright validity, stating:

This presumption is of vital importance to copyright owners, and is frequently cited as an inducement to register works although copyright protection attaches automatically upon fixation. The presumption is particularly important to individual authors and small entities who struggle to afford the costs of federal litigation to adjudicate copyright claims. Imposing the costs of a Markman-like evidentiary showing of originality in every litigation would effectively render even their timely-registered works judicially unenforceable.[2]

The Abstraction-Filtration-Comparison Analysis

A court may certainly write an opinion finding that a registered copyright in a work to be invalid, but not without thorough analysis and clear articulation of its reasoning. Here, the scholars’ brief argues that the district court compounded its errors by engaging in an incomplete and improper analysis of the work at issue and then exacerbated harm, not only shifting the burden to the plaintiff to re-prove copyrightability, but to do so within the context of this court’s erroneous analysis.

Not unlike the analyses for “substantial similarity,” the Abstraction-Filtration-Comparison (AFC) test is a judicial review which examines the work by filtering out the unprotectable elements and then comparing the remaining protectable elements to the allegedly infringing work. But here, the scholars’ brief notes examples whereby the court misconstrued features of the SAS work as a foundation for finding non-protection. One example cited is “open source elements,” which tends to confuse a lot of people because “open source” generally refers to software that is made freely available, but this attribute does not alter the copyrightability of the work. Thus, the scholars’ brief states:

…the Court’s attack on the protectability of SAS works is predicated on an alleged characteristic of the works that has nothing to do with copyrightability. Thus, by its own terms, the District Court filtered out what should be presumed to be copyrightable elements of Plaintiff’s work. This alone is reversable error.

As stated above, whether SAS or WPL should ultimately prevail on the true merits of each claim is immaterial to the issues raised in the scholars’ brief. And to be honest, I am not about to crawl through the thicket of facts, allegations, and responses presented in what looks like more than a decade of these two companies duking it out with one another. Some have referred to this case as a Google v. Oracle light, but at least in context to the brief discussed in this post, I would disagree.

In Google, the core copyrightability question (which the Supreme Court failed to adequately answer) was solely based on the merger doctrine, and whichever view one held of that argument, either could find purchase in the law. In SAS, it appears that the district court simply abandoned any foundation in law whatsoever. And for the sake of rightsholders working in all media, the Federal Circuit must reverse.

[1] The amici scholars refer to this litany as “the List” in their brief.

[2] Markman refers to judicial interpretations of specific words used in a patent description pursuant to a patent litigation.

Also see brief co-author Steven Tepp’s piece at IPWatchdog.

Photo by: AndreyPopov

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)