Copyright a children's book.

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  • Hello, I have a quick question. I want to write a children's book but I'm not 100% sure if i'm infringing on a copyright. I will give an example. Say the theme to the book would involve dogs being stranded on an island. You would have a lead dog, his dimwitted underling, a smart dog, a beautiful dog, a country dog, and an older couple dogs. Yes, I know it sounds like Gilligan's Island. That is my question. Would I be able to use the same basic format as Gilligans Island for dogs in a children's book? Thank you.
  • Two points might help with this question. First, copyright protects expression but not the underlying ideas. Second, the test for infringement is "substantial similarity." In practice, this means a court would try to separate out from the accused work anything that falls below the line of expression -- things that are merely ideas -- and look at what remains to see if it is substantially similar to the original.

    In the example you give, I think a group of people (and in my house dogs are people too) stranded on a desert island is clearly an unprotectable idea; "Lost" does not infringe Gilligan, for instance. But if it were as clear as it is in your question that the whole cast of characters was deliberately copied from Gilligan, it seems much more likely that a court would find that the line had been crossed into substantially similar expression. Instead of a new work based on a similar idea, I suspect that the book you describe would be an infringing derivative work.

    It is difficult to say were the line is between idea and expression. Suppose you varied the characters a little -- changed genders or altered the way they related to each other. That might be enough to make the children's book non-infringing. What courts really do not like is "slavish" copying, particularly if it is clearly intended to cash in on the market created by the original.

    There are several old cases involving plays that illustrate the reasoning courts use in these types cases pretty well; I will try to post some citations next week.
  • The two cases about plays with similar plots and characters that I was remembering on Saturday were these:

    Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., 45 F.2d 119 (2d Cir. 1930)
    Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corp., 81 F.2d 49 (2d Cir. 1936)

    If you read them both you will see that they come out different ways -- one found substantial similarity and hence infringement while the other (earlier) one did not. This shows, I think, how dependent on specific circumstances these determinations must be.

    A more recent case specifically about a children's book, but with its own unique facts because both the original and the accused work were based on an old Russian folktale, is Reyher v. Children's Television Workshop, 533 F.2d 87 (2d Cir. 1976).

    I offer these citations not to suggest a definitive answer to your question, but because they illustrate the way an infringement decision in similar situations is reasoned through.
  • On the other hand, is your work a parody of Gilligan's Island? That would give it some protection. But if it's just a retelling of Giglligin's Island, with dogs, for children, then no.

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