Are facts protected under copyright law?

The book, My Mother’s Secret, was published in Canada in 2013 and featured on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list.
The book, My Mother’s Secret, was published in Canada in 2013 and featured on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list.

Can you legally have a copyright on facts?

According to the Federal Court of Canada there is a limit to what a copyright can protect, and facts are one of the limits.

The recent Federal Court case involved a book that was partly-based on facts from a documentary the author had watched during Holocaust Education Week in 2011. The documentary was about the true story of a courageous Polish family who risked their lives to hide three Jewish families during the Second World War.

Inspired by the documentary she saw in Toronto, the author decided to turn the story into a novel for young adults. The author used the real names of the family and some facts from the documentary in her book. However, the rest of the book, the characters, and personalities were based on the author’s own ideas and imagination.

The book, My Mother’s Secret, was published in Canada in 2013 and featured on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list. The book was also acquired for worldwide publishing rights and was later published in the United States.

The documentary filmmakers found out about the book, and were upset about the story being fictionalized without any credit to the documentary. They took their complaint to the Federal Court claiming copyright infringement.

See: Who owns a copyright?

The court said while the documentary “as a whole is undoubtedly protected by copyright . . . there can be no copyright in facts.” The court further explained that regardless of the size or significance of the facts, they are not protected by copyright law in Canada.

While the documentary filmmakers are the only ones who are able to reproduce the actual documentary in any form they want, they cannot claim to own the “factual details” on which the documentary was based.

What is protected is the “specific expression of it [the story] through the exercise of skill and judgment.” In other words, the “means, method, and manner” in which the documentary was made is protected and had the author borrowed from that she would have likely violated copyright laws.

See: Protecting songs, scripts and film or television ideas

In this case, the court found all the author did was take facts from the documentary and that isn’t enough to establish copyright infringement. The case was dismissed.

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