How the Supreme Court Paved the Way for Virtual Phonebooks
On Tuesday we shared a bit about the history of the phonebook and the technological features that make PeopleSmart a "phonebook for the 21st century." Today, we're looking to history again, this time to a Supreme Court decision that made it possible to build a national virtual phonebook. In this post, we describe how copyright laws that once protected telephone book monopolies were overturned by a key Supreme Court decision. This decision, and the new legal doctrine it established eventually created the conditions that would make PeopleSmart possible. We'll explain why, without this decision, we never could have made a virtual phonebook, much less one that includes a broad range of public records.
First, a bit of background. Before 1990, companies earned copyrights based on the "Sweat of the Brow" doctrine, which awarded copyrights based on the effort put into a work, rather than creativity. Telephone companies were able to copyright telephone books by simply compiling information. One company, a Kansas public utility company called Rural Telephone Service Company, was quite protective of their telephone book monopoly. They were the sole provider of local telephone services, and according to Kansas law, because they were a monopoly, were required to distribute a telephone directory. The telephone book was free; they made money by selling advertising in their yellow pages.
So when Rural refused to sell data to Feist Publications, a publishing company that combined data from large geographic areas to make larger books, Feist copied Rural's numbers. They removed the listings that were outside the area their phone books covered, and then copied much of the data in Rural's phone books. However, because Rural planted four fake numbers in their directory, they were able to detect the replication, and quickly sued Feist for copyright infringement.
Rural claimed that Feist was not permitted to directly copy information, arguing that they should gather it by door-to-door investigation or through a survey. Feist claimed this was impractical, and that Rural could not copyright their information. The District Court sided with Rural, noting that "courts have consistently held that telephone directories are copyrightable," and the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. Feist challenged the decision to the Supreme Court, and the Court accepted the case to determine what, exactly, Rural's copyright protected.
Previous decisions by lower courts put legal precedent on Rural's side. However, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote an opinion for a unanimous Court that overturned the "Sweat of the Brow" doctrine in Feist v. Rural, The Court ruled that information can be collected from anywhere as long as it does not copy the organizer's original contributions. Her reasoning was that authors record facts, but they do not create facts, and thus it is legal to copy facts. But authors do create editorial writing and analysis, and as such, any original contributions are protected. Copyright law, according to O'Connor, is meant to "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts," and the "Sweat of the Brow" doctrine did not do so. "Because Rural's white pages lack the requisite originality," she wrote, "Feist's use of the listings cannot constitute infringement." The ruling ended the information and copyright monopoly telephone companies held.
Around the time this decision came out in 1991, the National Science Foundation opened the internet for general use. (Previously, the only permitted uses were for research or education.) The first web browser was introduced in 1993, as was Lycos, one of the first successful search engines. The new technology and new doctrine following Feist v. Rural allowed anyone to use the internet to collect and organize telephone numbers. Creative developers soon made massive CD-ROM telephone directories. Then, in 1996, a college student named Alex Algard developed WhitePages.com, the first online White Pages.
Today, partly thanks to the Court's ruling, PeopleSmart is able to compile not just telephone numbers, but also public records from a variety of sources. Our unique approach combines multiple data sources to provide the most accurate and comprehensive information out there. We can publish online whitepages because the Supreme Court ruled that "copyright rewards originality."