Thursday, 26 December 2013

IPse Dixit: Copyright in ideas

If there is no copyright in an idea (which, in fact, is not true, but has enough validity for my purpose), how do we account for Elanco v Mandops [1979] FSR 46?

I can't point you to a readily-accessible online copy of the judgment. As it predates the world wide web (1980, at the very earliest) there is virtually no commentary on it, yet it looms large in undergraduate IP courses, where it causes confusion. That probably makes it worth jotting down my thoughts on it: part of a series of postings on topics of general interest for students of intellectual property, perhaps. I should try to think of a snappy label for the series ... how about IPse Dixit (literally, 'he said it himself', although figuratively it means a dogmatic assertion - never mind, it's good enough, and in fact the figurative meaning is pretty good anyway!).

In the case, the plaintiff had invented a new herbicide. It had a patent for the herbicide, but as patents do it expired, and the defendant started making its own herbicide to the same recipe.

When you sell something like herbicide you have to make sure buyers know what to do with it. Not only do you want to make sure they appreciate what plants it will deal with, you don't want them poisoning themselves, or livestock, or wildlife. The instructions provided with the plaintiff's products (on the side of the barrel) contained information drawn from public sources, including the results of field trials carried out by the plaintiff itself and by independent research institutes. The instructions were apt to be referred to as a compilation - which of course is a species of literary work.

To start with, the defendant produced instructions for its product using the plaintiffs' material. The plaintiff objected that it was too similar, and the defendants recast their instructions several times. It did not work. On an interlocutory application, the judge took the view that the final version of the instructions was arguably infringing because the defendants had not returned to public sources but simply drew their information from the plaintiff’s instructions. The Court of Appeal, refusing the appeal, accepted that the instructions were a copyright literary work, and noted that a great deal of time and labour had been spent in putting the compilation together. It stressed the skill and labour expended in developing the compilation, protecting not only the expression of the information but also the process by which that expression of the information came into existence.

Copyright lawyers are often asked, 'how much do I have to change to avoid infringing copyright?': and the answer is always that you will never avoid infringing copyright if you start from that point.

It is often said that Elanco effectively secured a monopoly over the information contained in their instruction despite it being in the public domain. But in fact they only secured exclusive rights over their compilation of material collected from the public domain, and that is a very different matter. Copyright does not prevent others using the same sources, but it certainly prevents others from saving themselves the trouble of consulting those sources by taking material from someone else's compilation. In his judgment, Goff LJ. cited with approval a passage from the judgment of the Vice-Chancellor in Scott v Stanford (1867) L.R. 3 Eq. 723: "No man is entitled to avail himself of the previous labour of another for the purpose of conveying to the public the same information".

So how, you might ask (especially if you are an examiner), can this be reconciled with Green v Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand [1989] 2 All ER 1056 (PC)?  The answer seems pretty simple: Hughie Green's problem was that he could not point to a copyright work in which his rights had been infringed. The defendant convinced the Privy Council that all it had taken was ideas. There was no dramatic work to copy, and as for copyright in a broadcast, they had made their own programme. Contrast this with the Elanco situation where the Court of Appeal was satisfied that the plaintiff had made a compilation.

It remains difficult to distinguish between ideas and expression, or as Lloyd LJ said in Baigent and Leigh v Random House [2007] EWCA Civ 247 (28 March 2007), no clear principle 'is or could be laid down ... to tell whether what is sought to be protected is on the ideas side of the dividing line, or on the expression side.'

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