Posted by Caitlin Foster
A writer is suing Oprah, but I’m not sure he can win. Charles Harris from Philadelphia is suing Oprah for “intentional unlawful use” and other damages, for reading on her show passages of a booklet he wrote without his permission. According to a local Philadelphia newspaper, Oprah read passages directly from Harris’ publication, “How America Elects her President,” on her show in February 2009.
But– and here’s the kicker– Harris sent Oprah ten copies of the booklet the year before. And she read directly from his writing: “the language and structure…were exactly the same.” Now, I’m no lawyer. I know the basics of copyright law, but I couldn’t tell you the fine print or the loopholes. However, it seems to me Harris handed his work to Oprah with a bow on it. As a journalist, I would never submit a story to a magazine unless asked. Doing so makes my story the magazine’s story. In fact, most publications tell you that upfront so there is no confusion. Instead, I would send the editor a letter, asking if he or she is interested in my brilliant idea. Is it different for television? Harris should have just sent a letter, and kept his booklet at home– all ten copies.
Moreover, it doesn’t seem to me that Oprah was intentionally using Harris’ work unlawfully. She read his words, but from what I can tell, never claimed them as her own. And why would she? She’s Oprah, for crying out loud. She’s got enough success with her name stamped on it; she doesn’t need someone else’s work. Plus, Oprah could argue she used only a small portion of his work, and it was for the purpose of news, which is generally protected under Fair Use.
I’m not saying Oprah did the right thing. She should have gotten permission from Harris to read his work. That would have been the safe thing to do, and us writers appreciate it. What I’m questioning is whether Harris will win his lawsuit against Oprah. Who do you think is in the right or will come out on top: Oprah or Charles Harris? Did Oprah violate Harris’ copyright? If so, how exactly? This article made me think about copyright law in general. Today, tons of people’s work is available to tons of other people via the Internet. Does our current copyright law adequately protect intellectual property from misuse across all available platforms?