Big news: Fed Court of Australia rules no copyright in telephone directories

Warwick Rothnie is reporting that the Federal Court has declined to follow Desktop Marketing (which held that telephone directories were protected by copyright in 2002) in light of the High Court’s decision in IceTV (which held that copyright was not infringed by taking time and title information from a timetable). Decision is here: Telstra v Phone Directories [2010] FCA 44.

This is very interesting. The argument that IceTV effectively overrules DMS was inevitable, given Telstra’s near monopoly on a relatively lucrative compilation of information. Telstra argued that IceTV’s discussion of DMS was obiter and that the Federal Court would still be bound by the older Full Federal Court decision. As Warwick highlights, Justin Gordon explains that that contention was incorrect: ([46], citations removed)

Before turning to the facts, mention must be made of the decision of the Full Court of the Federal Court in Desktop Marketing. In that decision, copyright was found to subsist in certain editions of WPDs and YPDs. The Applicants submitted that the resolution of the present case remains governed by the outcome in Desktop Marketing and that the High Court’s comments on copyright subsistence in IceTV should be regarded as obiter dicta. I reject that contention. Firstly, IceTV is binding authority on the proper interpretation of the Copyright Act. The reasoning of both plurality judgments establishes principles of law beyond copyright infringement. Secondly, the High Court directly warned of the need to treat Desktop Marketing with particular care: see IceTV at [52], [134], [157] and [188]. Thirdly, Desktop Marketing […] did not deal directly with the issue of authorship. Rather, all issues in respect of copyright had been conceded other than that of originality. In fact, Finkelstein J (at first instance) questioned the assumptions the parties had made about authorship: Telstra Corporation Ltd v Desktop Marketing Systems Pty Ltd [2001] FCA 612 at [4]. Finally, the facts of this case are significantly different. The WPDs and YPDs in question are different. Moreover, the Genesis Computer System which stored the relational database and which was used in the production of some of the WPDs and YPDs in issue in these proceedings (after September 2001 in the case of YPDs and late 2003 in the case of WPDs) was not in use in Desktop Marketing[…].

Very interesting. It seems that the High Court’s decision in IceTV is already having flow-on effects, bringing Australian copyright law more into line with the higher standard of originality required in the US and other jurisdictions for copyright protection. It seems that Her Honour’s decision was predicated on the lack of identifiable authorship as well as the lack of originality of contributions. The rising importance of authorship is quite interesting; it is something that has been somewhat neglected in copyright law in the past. (See Tim Wu, ‘On Copyright’s Authorship Policy’ 2008 U. Chi. Legal F. 335 (2008) (pre-print at SSRN).)