U.S. copyright protects original creative work once it is fixed in some tangible form, regardless of whether it is published. Creators, or authors, of the work, enjoy the exclusive right to duplicate, distribute, display and perform their work, as well as create derivative works based on the original. Authors may also license others to exercise any of these rights under contract. A compilation is a type of creative work eligible for copyright protection under the U.S. Copyright Act.
Under U.S. copyright law, a compilation is a work created by selecting and arranging previously existing material in such a way that the combined whole constitutes a new work of authorship. The copyright in the compilation extends solely to the work of the author, not the underlying pieces that make up the compilation. For example, if an author creates a book of “The 20 Most Controversial Short Stories,” he acquires a copyright for the compilation. That copyright protects only that author’s original selection of the 20 stories he selected. The compilation copyright does not extend to the stories themselves, but merely the arrangement of them.
Selection and Arrangement
For a compilation to be eligible for copyright protection, something about the way the editor of the compilation has selected and arranged the pieces must be creative, at least in a minimal way. For example, an author has written four short stories, all of which are in the public domain. If another published an anthology merely containing all four stories, that anthology would not be eligible for copyright protection. There is no creativity involved in simply publishing all of them. Similarly, there is not enough creativity involved in using a standard or routine method of organization, such as alphabetical order, to render a compilation eligible for copyright protection.
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Facts and Public Domain
A compilation copyright is thin, and protects only the contribution of the author who created the compilation. Facts themselves are not copyrightable. A compilation may be created of some combination of works that are in the public domain, but this does not remove them from the public domain. The individual works may still be used freely, but they may not be reproduced and distributed in a way that mimics the organization or combination used by the compiling author. For example, a compilation of “The 117 Most Fascinating Facts About Toilets” would be entitled to a compilation copyright. Another author would remain free to create her own compilation of “The 50 Most Disturbing Facts About Toilets,”, using some of the same facts contained in the first compilation, without infringing the first author’s copyright.
Many compilations are composed of facts or works in the public domain, but compilations are also compiled using currently copyrighted works. The compilation copyright does not provide protection for the individual works themselves; rather, it protects only the particular arrangement of those works together in one unit. Thus, if a young author finds her short story included in an anthology titled “The 27 Greatest Emerging Authors,” she should be aware that the compilation copyright of the anthology does not extend to the words of her short story. Without some licensing agreement with the compilation's author, the young author retains the copyright and all exclusive rights in her short story, and the compiler needs her permission to use her story.
Jennifer Mueller has a J.D. from the University of Indiana, Maurer School of Law. She has been sharing her legal knowledge on the internet since 2009. Mueller has been published in the Indiana Law Journal, and her writing appears on legal websites such as LegalZoom.