Copyright–Protection Denied to Verbal Expression of Simple Subject Matter–Morrissey v. Proctor & Gamble Co.

The plaintiff copyrighted a series of rules for a sales promotional contest in which contestants’ social security numbers were used as the basis for a “sweepstakes.” In 1959 he submitted the contest rules and game suggestions to several companies, including the defendant Procter & Gamble Company, to see if they were interested in using his scheme. The defendant failed to accept or even to respond to the plaintiff’s solicitation. However, three years later Procter & Gamble initiated a “Shopping Fling Sweepstakes” which utilized contestants’ social security numbers as the basic element of the game. Plaintiff brought an action for copyright infringement in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, claiming that the defendant’s first contest rule was copied from rule I of his copyrighted game. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant, holding that defendant had proved that it had not had access to the copyrighted material, and that in any event the rule was not copyrightable since it was based on a relatively simple idea and evidenced no “original creative authorship.” On appeal to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, held, affirmed on other grounds. The First Circuit concluded that the district court’s analysis of both the access issue and the question of originality was incorrect. However, the court affirmed on the ground that so “straightforward and simple” a matter could be expressed in only a “limited number” of ways;2 therefore, to permit copyright protection of a “mere handful of forms” would exhaust all future use of the substance or idea of the contest.