Copyright Q: descriptions of copyrighted works

Some Wikipedia schmuck is making noise at me because he thinks a plot summary I wrote for a film constitutes a copyright violation. He’s claiming that by describing the events of the film in words I’ve created a “derivative work” that infringes on the filmmaker’s copyrighted original ideas. I can’t say that in my brief dips into copyright law I’ve heard this notion before. Does the concept of derivative works extend to written descriptions of films? If so is there some articulated legal standard as to when a description crosses the line?

Nonsense. A derivative work would be if you took the characters of a book or movie and wrote your own book from it (e.g., fan fiction). A derivative work is if a movie is made of a book. Merely summarizing a movie’s plot is not a derivative work under the law.

Every newspaper in the US has capsule summaries of films in their pages, and it’s never a copyright issue. When Roger Ebert (or any other critic) writes a review of a film, he usually summarizes the plot – and there’s no need to ask permission.

This falls squarely under fair use. (Well, technically not fair use – quoting the original work is where fair use applies – but it’s the same thing.)

Totally asinine. If that were the case, you could never write about a book, play, movie, poem, anything really. You could just tell people the title and tell them to see it for themselves. Maybe not even the title. Just point and grunt.

If you were actually selling your summary, as it it were an original work of art, that’d be different.

If it were a copyright violation, movie studios would sue every reviewer whenever they trashed a film.

No, it wouldn’t. Your summary is still yours, not a derivative work or in any way dependent on the original. You can do whatever you want with it, including sell it.

From Westlaw’s summary of Twin Peaks Productions, Inc. v. Publications Intern., Ltd., 996 F.2d 1366 (2nd Cir. 1993):

From Judge Martin’s published decision:

So I guess the question for the OP is: " how detailed is your plot summary vs sht show?" 2 hour movie & 2 paragraph summary, probably OK. 30 minute TV show & 8-page summary, probably not.

I haven’t done an exact word count but I roughly estimate that my summary is under 1000 words on an 85 minute film.

I’ll have to read that decision to see what the real issues were. I don’t have a Westlaw account and I don’t see the full transcript elsewhere.

But my guess is that the case turned on other issues beside mere summary. See the .pdf Fixing Fair Use by Michael W. Carroll

The world is replete with long detailed summaries of movies, television shows, and books.

The web site Television Without Pity does “recaps” of shows that are longer than the original.

Every major movie star and director has a “The Films of…” book with summaries of their work. (Before the DVDs we Marx Brothers fans had nothing but the books giving long detailed summaries of every movie to rely on.)

Leonard Maltin and dozens of others put out movie guides with summaries ranging from a few sentences to hundreds of words.

TV Guide and others run summaries of every show, without any critical comment.

Cliff’s Notes and its imitators run lengthy summaries of book still under copyright.

The list could run on for pages.

As Carroll’s article shows, there is no coherent law about what Fair Use is. And only the barest few cases, involving the most money, ever make it to a court decision. But if the literal words of Judge Martin’s decision - “Chapter 3 of the Book is essentially a detailed recounting of the first eight episodes of the series.” - were to be the guide then Television Without Pity and hundreds of other sites would be out of business tomorrow and hundreds of authors would have their books seized. (How many other quiz books based on movies or tv shows can you think of? I’ve seen plenty, the Seinfeld decision reference notwithstanding.)

Without a legal guide as to what is acceptable and with enormous precedent as to the unchallenged publication of summaries, what do I suggest? In this specific case I’d find whatever similar summaries already exist and cite them as precedent. More generally, my feeling is that the case law is about exceptions and not the rule. There are too many summary products put out by too many publishers with nervous attorneys for none of them to be legal.

Question: I thought that in cases where the summary is part of a critique it fell under some kind of fair use provisions. But just a summary or transcript alone would be a no-no because you are just copying the work and are not contributing to any kind of critical analysis or commentary. Am I mistaken? Could someone clarify?

You would be correct. From the decision (no link, because i got it through WestLaw):

This section is followed by sample paragraphs from the book, showing the level of detail that could be found in the plot summaries.

The decision continues:

Next, the issue of Fair Use is discussed:

There’s more (another 90-odd pages, in fact), but i think that gives a fair idea of some of the key principles and findings underlying the decision.

An odd thing to say. How much clearer could Judge Martin have been in his decision?

I’m familiar with the genre, and plot summaries of feature films seldom went beyond a half page of text. Example, from The Films of Frank Sinatra.

For Maltin’s guides, “a few sentences” is correct. Which of the movie guide books have plot summaries that run into hundreds of words?

A few sentences long, and usually based on press handouts by the networks.

Here is where the fair use exception for genuine scholary use comes into play.

Walloon, you and mhendo need to have a talk. :slight_smile:

From the excerpts martin ruled that instead of a creative summary, the PIL made an abridgment, and abridgments are clearly derivative works. Nobody argues that. Whether he was right on this particular case I cannot have any say. But more than mere summary was at work.

When I read copyright cases, there is almost always another issue that the judge uses as the lever to get the case off of fair use. Otherwise, it becomes essentially he said, she said. That’s why I could make my guess sight unseen.