Do 20 consecutive words deserve copyright protection?

One problem with copyright is that it lasts too long, as an earlier post on this blog explored. But there’s another issue: the fact that copyright protects even very short texts. This was an issue in a recent court case in Sweden, discussed on The IPKat blog. Unusually, perhaps, for a copyright case, it concerned a Swedish supplier of a roof snow guard system, and a Norwegian competitor. The latter sold its roof snow guard system with a manual that included a 20-word description of how the system of hooks should be installed on roofs:

Half the hooks shall be mounted on each roof tile in rows from the eaves upwards. Remaining hooks are evenly distributed over the roof.

The Swedish company argued that this 20-word instruction infringed its copyright in a similar installation instruction manual, supplied with its own system, which read as follows:

50% of the estimated number of [brand] hooks are mounted on each roof tile, from below and upwards along the roof. [Brand] should always be placed on the bottom line on each roof tile. The remaining 50% is evenly distributed over the rest of the roof, but not on the top two rows.

The question before the court was whether these few words deserved copyright protection. In this case the judges ruled that the Swedish text lacked sufficient originality to qualify as a copyrightable work and thus to enjoy legal protection. Moreover, the judges said that even if the Swedish text had been sufficiently original, the Norwegian text was different enough not to be considered infringing. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the court seriously considered the possibility that a 20-word text can enjoy copyright protection. Indeed, in a famous case from a decade ago, the EU’s top court ruled that printing out an extract of just 11 words required permission, “if that extract contains an element of the work which, as such, expresses the author’s own intellectual creation”. That would seem to be a ridiculously low bar, and shows once more how divorced from everyday life copyright has become.

Featured image by Petr Kratochvil.

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