Thursday, July 26, 2012

"Just the Facts, Ma'am"

"Just the facts, Ma'am." That was Sergeant Joe Friday's standard request when interviewing victims on the classic television show, Dragnet. At least that's what the lore says. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, Sergeant Friday never uttered those exact words. Still, he did make it clear that he wanted to hear only facts.

Even facts can be spun and distorted, but in most situations giving "just the facts" is less likely to get you in trouble.

That's also true in copyright law, and the reason is simple. Facts can't be copyrighted.

The U.S. Supreme Court explained it this way: "[F]acts do not owe their origin to an act of authorship. The distinction is one between creation and discovery: the first person to find and report a particular fact has not created the fact; he or she has merely discovered its existence."* Since facts are not original works of authorship, they cannot be copyrighted.

According to the cases, the following are uncopyrightable facts: telephone numbers, names, addresses, information on the current status of basketball games, recipe ingredients, quotes from third-party interviews, and historical events.

But can't you copyright a biography or other nonfiction built around facts? Yes, you can. Although you cannot copyright the actual facts, you can copyright the words you use to describe them. Those words do have to contain a minimal level of creativity, but note the word "minimal."

Biographies easily meet this test. You can't stop people from writing about Beatrix Potter's life, but you can prohibit them from using your words to do it.

Is that also true for telephone books and cookbooks and other compilations of facts? Stay tuned for next month's post.

Kathryn Page Camp


* Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Service Co., 499 U.S. 340, 347 (1991).


  1. My husband pointed out that the Asian cop on "The Mentalist" is a successful clone of Joe Friday. :)

    Looking forward to Part 2!

  2. Just a comments on biographies. The most enjoyable ones I've read have more creativity. The two I've enjoyed the most are Zachary Karabell's bio of Pres. Chester Arthur where he describes Sen. Roscoe Conklin (R-NY) as a 6'3" peacock, and where he has a cliffhanger at the end of most chapters and Ken Ackerman's Dark Horse, which looks at the nomination, election, and assassination of James Garfield, which was written in a way that captured me from page one and didn't let go till the end.