Thursday, June 12, 2008

First Circuit Hearts Oprah

So a woman from Saugus named Darlene Tracy filed a lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey a while back, claiming that Oprah had stolen her idea for a television show called "The Philanthropist" when she put Oprah's Big Give on the air. The trial court ruled against Ms. Tracy and she took an appeal in the First Circuit. Yesterday the First Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Ms. Tracy's claims in Tracy v. Winfrey, First Cir. No. 07-1630.

The First Circuit's decision is brief, but it's interesting that they make no mention of a bedrock principle of copyright law: that you can't copyright an idea. And if you think about this notion for even a second or two, it makes quite a bit of sense.


Anonymous said...

You can't copyright an idea, but idea misappropriation can be actionable if surrounding circumstances give rise to an implied promise by the taker to pay for the idea or compensate the giver in exchange for disclosing or providing it to the taker. Although the case was treated by the judge and in the press as "copyright infringement," one of the central points of the appeal was the the dismissed complaint, on its face, stated claims for actional misappropriation based on an implied promise to pay. The appellate papers make clear the proposal was expressly submitted as a "Business Proposal," wich should have been enough to survive 12b6 dismissal, at least as to that implied promise claim. First Circuit failed to even address that central argument.

Terry Klein said...

Those are interesting points, but they raise at least two issues. The first, which I don't know the answer to, is whether the misappropriation theory that you outline would be preempted by the copyright act. The second issue is that presenting a theory in appellate papers is not the same thing as presenting them in a well-pled complaint. Thus the oft-stated missive "Arguments are not evidence."

Anonymous said...

The answer to the first question is no, such claims are no preempted, because the gravaman of the action are not things the copyright act covers or controls, but are based on common law principles of breach of contract or other tortious conduct (misrepresentation, for example, or whether an implied contract arose). The copyright act does not purport to cover such things. The cases require - in order for such state-based claims to survive - that they have at least one legal element different or additional to claims covered (and preempted by) the act (i.e., implied contract/misrepresentations).

The appellate papers show that the original complaint alleged the work was pitched as a business proposal. The cases suggest this fact alone could have been sufficient to support a valid state-based claim for implied contract to pay for the disclosure if the recipient developed the idea later for profit (where it was disclosed for its review as a business proposal). Guess not. The unfortunate part is that the decision did not even address this central point; probably the strongest argument at isue.

Terry Klein said...

I'm agnostic on the first point.

On the second point, I'm less sympathetic. The plaintiff chose to proceed pro se in the trial court. And then she didn't plead her claims in separate counts, which is recommended in Rule 10. Expecting the Court to divine a cause of action from a bunch of numbered paragraphs is risky. Not sure that the First Circuit is the one at fault here.