Once in a while, and perhaps more often than academics sometimes concede, the court gets it right. Take Compaq Computer Corp. v. Ergonome Inc. (pdf link to the opinion), in which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a jury finding of fair use. Compaq distributed a booklet on ergonomics that used a small number of illustrations of hand positions drawn by the plaintiffs and published as part of a larger textbook on preventing computer injuries. The court noted that the jury reasonably concluded that Compaq’s use had no impact whatsoever on the sales of plaintiff’s work. As one witness testified, “the potential market [for the plaintiffs' work] was essentially thwarted by an uncontrollable market phenomenon, namely, managerial consumption and dissemination of [the plaintiffs'] techniques.” The testimony makes me wonder whether the court was too quick to allow that copyright attached to the individual drawings of hand positions (section 102(a), or merger, anyone?), but this is clearly a sensible result.
For all of you out there teaching and using ergonomic principles to stay healthy at the keyboard, fear not: copyright won’t stand in your way.