Many lawyers in Massachusetts would agree that Massachusetts Federal District Court Judge William Young is one of the most erudite judges in the district. Yet, he has written relatively few copyright law decisions in his 23 years on the federal bench. A Westlaw search shows that he has authored fewer than ten substantive copyright decisions.
In a decision issued on February 28th in the case Situation Management Systems v. ASP Consulting Group, Judge Young undertook the question that has caused many lawyers to call copyright law one of the most metaphysical of practice areas: how to draw the line between expression that is protected by the law, and that which is not. In this decision, Judge Young concluded that Situation Management System’s (“SMS”) workshop training materials, aimed at improving business and personal productivity, did not make the grade.
Judge Young found that the challenged texts, created by two former employees of SMS who had formed a competing business, had been created very quickly, indicating that the former employees had not started from scratch, but had likely used the SMS materials as a starting point. After explaining the famiar (to copyright afficionados) concepts of “idea v. express,”, scenes a faire and the fact that copyright law does not protect a “process,” Judge Young applied these docrines to the case at hand. He found that SMS’s materials were “aggresively vapid . . . hundreds of pages filled with generalizations, platitudes and observations of the obvious.” Comparing this work with some examples of great literature (The Odyssey by Homer, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier and, of course, a sonnet by The Bard) he found that the SMS material was largely uncopyrightable. While the structure of the SMS texts were entitled to some limited protection, that protection inhered near the literal text level, which the defendant ASP did not copy.
Most importantly, in my view, Judge Young emphasized two points: first, the motivation of the copier is irrlevant. Here, the allegation that the former employees (now with the defendant) started their business to steal SMS’s materials and ruin their business, was irrelevant under copyright law if, as Judge Young concluded, they did not copy protected expression. This conclusion is not a surprise, but it’s nice to have it reinforced every once in a while by a respected federal judge.
Second, the fact that the defendants may have used SMS’s materials as their starting point was irrelevant, so long as the work the defendants created was not “substantially similar” under copyright law, which it was not. Again, not “new law,” but the first time it has been expressed by a court in the First Circuit.
The case is on the Pacer website, here.