54:2 Reach Out and Touch Someone: Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co.

Abstract

2016 marks the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., one of the Court’s landmark opinions in copyright law, and one that continues to define the standard of originality for copyrighted works in general and compilations of data in particular. The Feist case, however, was an unlikely candidate for landmark status. Only a handful of court opinions and academic authors had expressed dissatisfaction with the existing state of the law concerning originality and data compilations. Further, the Tenth Circuit’s opinion in Feist was a two-page, unpublished decision that could not be cited as precedent. The Supreme Court nonetheless granted certiorari and resolved a circuit split by rejecting decisively the “sweat of the brow” doctrine. In doing so, and in unexpectedly grounding its opinion in the Constitution’s Copyright Clause, the Court firmly reinvigorated a standard for originality that has proven durable, flexible, and occasionally controversial in meeting the challenges of copyright law in the 21st century.