Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service

Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service

Copyright case discussing originality with respect to compilations. An alphabetical listing of telephone subscribers ("white pages") is not sufficiently original to qualify for copyright protection as a compilation.

Court Documents

499 U.S. 340
Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc.

Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
No. 89–1909 Argued January 9, 1991 Decided March 27, 1991

Respondent Rural Telephone Service Company is a certified public utility providing telephone service to several communities in Kansas. Pursuant to state regulation, Rural publishes a typical telephone directory, consisting of white pages and yellow pages. It obtains data for the directory from subscribers, who must provide their names and addresses to obtain telephone service. Petitioner Feist Publications, Inc., is a publishing company that specializes in area-wide telephone directories covering a much larger geographic range than directories such as Rural's. When Rural refused to license its white pages listings to Feist for a directory covering 11 different telephone service areas, Feist extracted the listings it needed from Rural's directory without Rural's consent. Although Feist altered many of Rural's listings, several were identical to listings in Rural's white pages. The District Court granted summary judgment to Rural in its copyright infringement suit, holding that telephone directories are copyrightable. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


Rural's white pages are not entitled to copyright, and therefore Feist's use of them does not constitute infringement. Pp. 344–364.

(a) Article I, 8, cl. 8, of the Constitution mandates originality as a prerequisite for copyright protection. The constitutional requirement necessitates independent creation plus a modicum of creativity. Since facts do not owe their origin to an act of authorship, they are not original, and thus are not copyrightable. Although a compilation of facts may possess the requisite originality because the author typically chooses which facts to include, in what order to place them, and how to arrange the data so that readers may use them effectively, copyright protection extends only to those components of the work that are original to the author, not to the facts themselves. This fact/expression dichotomy severely limits the scope of protection in fact-based works. Pp. 344–351.

(b) The Copyright Act of 1976 and its predecessor, the Copyright Act of 1909, leave no doubt that originality is the touchstone of copyright protection in directories and other fact-based works. The 1976 Act explains that copyright extends to "original works of authorship," 17 U.S.C. 102(a), and that there can be no copyright in facts, 102(b). A compilation is not copyrightable per se, but is copyrightable only if its facts have been "selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship." 101 (emphasis added). Thus, the statute envisions that some ways of selecting, coordinating, and arranging data are not sufficiently original to trigger copyright protection. Even a compilation that is copyrightable receives only limited protection, for the copyright does not extend to facts contained in the compilation. 103(b). Lower courts that adopted a "sweat of the brow" or "industrious collection" test—which extended a compilation's copyright protection beyond selection and arrangement to the facts themselves—misconstrued the 1909 Act and eschewed the fundamental axiom of copyright law that no one may copyright facts or ideas. Pp. 351–361.

(c) Rural's white pages do not meet the constitutional or statutory requirements for copyright protection. While Rural has a valid copyright in the directory as a whole because it contains some forward text and some original material in the yellow pages, there is nothing original in Rural's white pages. The raw data are uncopyrightable facts, and the way in which Rural selected, coordinated, and arranged those facts is not original in any way. Rural's selection of listings—subscribers' names, towns, and telephone numbers—could not be more obvious, and lacks the modicum of creativity necessary to transform mere selection into copyrightable expression. In fact, it is plausible to conclude that Rural did not truly "select" to publish its subscribers' names and telephone numbers, since it was required to do so by state law. Moreover, there is nothing remotely creative about arranging names alphabetically in a white pages directory. It is an age-old practice, firmly rooted in tradition and so commonplace that it has come to be expected as a matter of course. Pp. 361–364.

916 F.2d 718, reversed.

O'CONNOR J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., concurred in the judgment.

Kyler Knobbe argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.

James M. Caplinger, Jr., argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the Association of North American Directory Publishers et al. by Theodore Case Whitehouse; for the International Association of Cross Reference Directory Publishers by Richard D. Grauer and Kathleen McCree Lewis; and for the Third-Class Mail Association by Ian D. Volner.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for Ameritech et al. by Michael K. Kellogg, Charles Rothfeld, Douglas J. Kirk, Thomas P. Hester, and Harlan Sherwat; for Association of American Publishers, Inc., by Robert G. Sugarman and R. Bruce Rich; for GTE Corp. by Kirk K. Van Tine, Richard M. Cahill, and Edward R. Sublett; for the National Telephone Cooperative Association by L. Marie Guillory and David Cosson; for the United States Telephone Association by Richard J. Rappaport and Keith P. Schoeneberger; and for West Publishing Co. by Vance K. Opperman and James E. Schatz.

Briefs of amici curiae were filed for Bellsouth Corp. by Anthony B. Askew, Robert E. Richards, Walter H. Alford, and Vincent L. Sgrosso; for Direct Marketing Association, Inc., by Robert L. Sherman; for Haines and Co., Inc., by Jeremiah D. McAuliffe, Bernard A. Barken, and Eugene Gressman; and for the Information Industry Association et al. by Steven J. Metalitz and Angela Burnett.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).