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Crane v. Poetic Products Ltd.

The district court held that the theories and facts surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I are not protectable elements of the book In God’s Name: An Investigation in the Murder of Pope John Paul I, and found that a fictional play, The Last Confession, based on these same theories and facts did not infringe any protected expression in the book.

Plaintiff Roger Crane, the author of the fictional play The Last Confession, sued defendant Poetic Products Limited, a company owning the copyright in the non-fiction book In God’s Name, seeking declaratory judgment that his play did not infringe the copyright in defendant’s book. Both works were based on the historic events surrounding Pope John Paul I.

The district court applied both Hoehling v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 618 F.2d 972 (2d Cir. 1980) and Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991) to reach its conclusion. Hoehling held that interpretations of historical facts or events are not protectable, including theories or plots. Additionally, scénes á faire (standard literary devices depicting a particular historical period) are not copyrightable as a matter of law. In Feist, the Supreme Court held that while copyrights do not apply to facts themselves, “thin” copyright protection does exist for an original selection or arrangement of facts, “but the copyright is limited to the particular selection or arrangement.” Feist, 499 U.S. at 349-51. Therefore, the district court found that only the expression of In God’s Name’s theories and surrounding facts, specifically the selection, coordination, and arrangement of its theories and facts, is protectable.

Based on its analysis of the claimed similarities of expression in the two works (defendant presented a long list of claimed similarities), the court held that the two works were not similar in protected expression, or look and feel. Additionally, the district court found that the opinions of third parties in secondary materials who thought the book was based on the play are irrelevant, since the works themselves, not descriptions or impressions of them, are the real test for claims of infringement. The district court declined to grant declaratory judgment that plaintiff has not infringed defendant’s U.K. copyrights since no foreign action was brought, making declaratory judgment premature, as well as offensive to international comity. Finally, the district court held that unfair competition claims grounded solely in the copying of a plaintiff’s protected expression are preempted by Section 301 of the Copyright Act.