Monday, June 25, 2007

Can a Grocery List be Copyrighted?

A new book by the founder of the surprisingly popular grocerylists.org proves that there's an audience for everything. Milk, Eggs, Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found is a collection of...grocery lists. Yes, that's right--a hardcover book priced at $19.95 and made up of "found" grocery lists.

Now, it seems unlikely that anyone slaps a little "(c) 2007" on the bottom of his grocery list (though I'm starting tonight), and once upon a time that would have been the end of the issue. But--although the news has been surprisingly slow to spread--copyright notices have been unnecessary since 1989. Now, any original expressive work is automatically copyrighted as soon as it is committed to "fixed format". The definition of "fixed" is extremely broad, including both digital and "hard" copies, sound recordings, handwritten drafts, and more. In essence, for the written word, as soon as you write it down. Or type it. Or word process it. Or blog it. You get the idea.

That means all kinds of things we don't usually thnk of as copyrightable are not only copyrightable, but copyrighted. Email, for instance. I've been told that in Austraila, forwarding an email without permission has been construed to infringe copyrights. That may seem extreme in our free-forwarding culture, but is email forwarding really any different from photocopying someone's handwritten letter and distributing it? Profit, remember, is not a necessary element of copyright infringement.

So what about your grocery list? We know copryight notices aren't required, so the issue seems to be whether a gorcery list is the kind of "creation" that can be copyrighted at all. I assume that the author and publisher considered this before bringing out Milk, Eggs, Vodka. It's entirely possible that the "authors" of those grocery lists aren't protected, because for a work to be copyrighted it must have some degree of originality; there must have been some creative effort. The line isn't clear. Telephone book style listings of information are definitely not copyrightable; stories are. There's a lot of ground in between.

A grocery list seems like precisely the kind of thing that couldn't be copyrighted--just a list of ordinary items.

Except...except...except...if there's nothing unique or interesting about the form of expression--whether it be a comedic combination of items, an outrageous abbreviation system, or the scribbled notes in the margin--then why is there a book?

Read in a hundred thousand disclaimers here, because I haven't read the book, but it seems to me that the author and the publisher have effectively disproven their best defense simply by publishing the book.

So...anyone missing a grocery list?

(c) Tiffany Sanders, 2007

6 comments:

TrueMirage said...

funny, thought-provoking, and a little disturbing. Isn't there a sci-fi book about a post-apocalyptic future where a grocery list is thought to be a sacred text?

Susie said...

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confessing7girl said...

what!!!!??? a groceries list can hv copyrights!!!!!!!!!!! ahhhhhhhhhhh i through mine in the garbage after im done!!!!! oh darn imagine the money i could be doing with that stuff!!!!!!

Jonathan Bailey said...

It's an interesting question with no easy answer...

Sometimes collections of data can actually have copyright protection. Think of phone books and maps. They are just collections of established facts but enjoy, depending on the ruling, copyright protection.

But a grocery list, especially a short one, probably doesn't reach the level required for copyright protection.

Of course, if you can interject some true creativity into the work, it can definitely be copyrighted. Consider making your list rhyme and calling it a short poem. Insert crazy punctuation and say that it is in the same vein as E.E. Cummings.

I doubt that a short list of items would enjoy copyright protection, but it would be fun to try and make it a work that could...

All usual disclaimers about me not being a lawyer go here...

Melissa said...

"A Canticle for Leibowitz."

~willow~ said...

what a thought-provoking post, thank you for sharing.