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Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc.

CITATION: 499 U.S. 340; 111 S. Ct. 1282.

COURT: Supreme Court of the United States.

BENCH: Chief Justice: William Rehnquist.

Associate Justices: Byron White, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, John P. Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter.


The Plaintiff/ Respondent (Rural Telephone Service Company) is a Telephone service company obligated to issue an annual telephone directory as per state regulations. This directory was termed as a “White and Yellow Pages” to be distributed free of charge due to the monopoly held by the Plaintiff in the market. .

The Defendant/ Appellant (Feist Publications) specialized in compiling directories for areas outside of the Plaintiff’s monopoly. But the Defendant’s directory was not limited to what is called a typical “White and Yellow Pages” , as it also included additional details.

While making a directory that included the region of the Plaintiff’s monopoly market, the defendant was denied a license by the Plaintiff to include entries from the plaintiff’s directory. The Defendant had copied the same without consent.

The Plaintiff filed a suit for copyright infringement.


Whether names, phone numbers and addresses from a directory be copyrighted or not?


The provisions which were applied were:

  • Article I, § 8, cl. 8, of the US Constitution which mandates originality as a prerequisite for copyright protection.

  • Section 102 of the Copyright Act 1976 was applied which provided for the “original work of authorship” and stated that copyright does not exist in fact.

  • Copyrightability of compilations were mentioned as per section 101 and 103 where the court emphasised on the fact that a final work of compilation inclusive of selection and arrangement of facts is copyrightable to a limited extent.


The then existing law regarding copyright protection in the US followed the Sweat of the Brow doctrine as per which any work in which a substantial amount of time and energy was invested would be considered as copyrightable.

As per the Sweat of the Brow doctrine, the District court of Kansas and the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit sided with the Plaintiff stating that since Rural Co. had put in substantial effort in making their directory, they would be considered as the copyright owners of the contents of the Directory.

But an appeal was filed by the defendant on the grounds that the contents of a directory are essentially facts and thus cannot be copyrighted.

The court analyzed the following pre-established principles:

  1. Facts cannot be copyrighted.

  2. Compilations of facts can be copyrighted.

The court held that for a work to qualify as ‘original’ under the copyright law, the work must be created independently by the author and should have some minimum degree of creativity. a A work closely resembling another work can still be considered as original, as long as it is not a result of copying. Noting this, the court further stated that facts cannot be considered as original for the purpose of the copyright law since a fact is discovered and not created.

Additionally, with respect to compilations, the court held that compilations of facts which possess the required creativity to be considered as original can be copyrighted. This creativity may be because of the order or arrangement of the facts to maximize efficiency for the reader. Thus, a new test called Modicum of Creativity test was established to test if a work meets the originality requirement.

Based on the Modicum of Creativity test, it was held that a compilation of phone numbers and addresses which merely states the information as facts with no original input by the author would not be copyrightable because it does not meet the minimum requirement of creativity required to attain originality. Further, even if the compilation is copyrighted, only the creative element of the work is protected and not the facts themselves.


The court stated that since the copyright law does not extend to facts themselves but only to the selection and arrangement of the facts, the present case cannot be considered as a case of infringement. Feist publications had copied subscriber details from the Rural telephone service Co. 's directory and had arranged them in an alphabetical order like the Plaintiff’s directory. But, since subscriber details were considered as facts and alphabetical listing is devoid of any creative element, there is no infringement.

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