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Did the On-Line Directory Violate Copyright Law?

by webmaster last modified 2003-05-02 09:22 PM

The on-line directory was created by combining names, addresses and phone numbers from a printed directory created and distributed by the PTSA/school with photographs scanned from the 7th grade yearbook published the previous school year.

The US Supreme Court ruled in 1991 (Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone System) that some collections of factual information such as directories are not copyrightable. The court found in the specific case that the copying of listings from a white pages telephone book to create another telephone book were not a violation of copyright law since the names, addresses and telephone numbers were only factual information. The Hollis Brookline Middle School (HBMS) student directory, containing names, addresses and telephone numbers, is therefore not copyrightable, and so any of the information contained therein can be used elsewhere with impunity.

What about the yearbook photos--was the use of these a violation of copyright law? In the case of these photos, one would first have to determine who holds the copyright to the photos--the school or the photography studio that took them. This would depend on whether the photography studio that took the photos did it as a work for hire. That's unlikely to be the case here--the photography studio probably holds the copyright since they offered different packages of photos for sale to students' families and kept the negatives.

One exception for copyright law is what's known as fair use. There are no hard and fast rules, but the determination of fair use depends on four factors:

  • The use of the photos (commercial vs. non-commercial)--in this case the use was non-commercial, the photos were shared with a handful of other students.
  • The nature of the material (factual vs. creative)--photos would in general be creative.
  • The amount or portion of the work used--in this case many photos.
  • This one is the most important--the financial impact of the use upon the potential market or value of the copyrighted work. Did the fact that six students were given access to the yearbook photos online result in financial loss to the photography studio in terms of lost sales? The answer is no since the online directory came out in the fall and the photos were sold were sold to students' families the previous school year.

There is, of course, the other consideration that the quality of the photos in the directory is inferior to that of actual prints, and so the computer images would probably not be an acceptable substitute for photographic prints.

Many yearbook photos have been scanned into, a commercial site, and we doubt that permissions were obtained for all of these.

We seriously doubt that the online directory would be viewed by any court as an infringement of copyright. Moreover, we don't believe it was appropriate for the Vice Principal to needlessly frighten a 13-year old by accusing him of violating copyright law.

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