First Circuit Reverses Judge Young in Situation Management Case

by Lee Gesmer on March 23, 2009

Are business training materials sufficiently original to be protected by copyright law? The answer, of course, is “it depends.” First and foremost it depends on the materials themselves, but it also depends on the judge. In Situation Management v. ASP, Massachusetts U.S. District Court Judge William Young thought the training materials created by the plaintiff, Situation Management, were not entitled to copyright protection. (I posted on this case when Judge Young’s decisionwas issued – click here for earlier post).

Judge Young was not complimentary toward Situation Management’s training materials. In the process of holding that the materials were not entitled to copyright protection he described them as nothing more than “a summary of common-sense communication skills . . . “fodder for sardonic workplace humor” and as “aggressively vapid”. He observed that “the works at issue are so dominated by nonprotectable material that it is impossible to reduce the work to a copyrightable essence or structure.” He found that the materials were filled with generalizations, platitudes, and observations of the obvious” . . . [contained] “not-so-stunning revelation[s],” and taught “[a]t their creative zenith, . . . common-sense communication skills.” Not finished, he observed that “these works exemplify the sorts of training programs that serve as fodder for sardonic workplace humor that has given rise to the popular television show The Office and the movie Office Space. They are aggressively vapid — hundreds of pages filled with generalizations, platitudes, and observations of the obvious.”

The First Circuit disagreed and reversed. The heart of the decision is captured in the following quotation:

. . . the district court improperly denied copyright protection to large portions of SMS’s works because it, in an error of law, found “they focus on concepts and teach a noncopyrightable process.” . . . The fact that SMS’s works describe processes or systems does not make their expression noncopyrightable. SMS’s creative choices in describing those processes and systems, including the works’ overall arrangement and structure, are subject to copyright protection. . . . The district court’s analysis . . . lost sight of the expressiveness of the works as a whole by focusing too closely on their noncopyrightable elements.

Link to the First Circuit opinion here.

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