Writer Sues Oprah. Should He?

Posted by Caitlin Foster

photo from yesprep.org

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?


8 responses to “Writer Sues Oprah. Should He?

  1. I agree with you! I don’t know what he was expecting by sending her 10 copies of his booklet. What else would she do with it? And she only passages, not the whole book. I know it’s kinda a gray area, but we’ve talked about how it’s generally Ok for journalists to use partial work without violating copyright laws.

    It sounds to me like Harris should have been clearer about what he wanted Oprah to do with his booklets or not have sent them at all.

    • I think you’re right. It sounds like Harris really just wanted to be on Oprah, and got upset when his plans didn’t work out. I think Oprah was in the right here. Thanks for your reply!

  2. Eduardo Tamez Zamarripa

    Wow, this is a pretty bizarre case. I’m curious to why Harris actually sued Oprah (other than wanting money). If she was just quoting him and reading his work I don’t understand why that would make him upset. I do not know much about copyright law either but I do not think Harris can win this one. Especially since it appears Oprah did not claim his work as her own and was not infringing on libel. It will be interesting to see the ruling on this one. If Oprah loses I doubt that will hurt her bank account, but it would rather be a surprising case that will cause television to be far more careful with what they broadcast.

    • No, losing this lawsuit could hurt nothing but Oprah’s pride, if that. From a journalistic standpoint, I agree that Oprah was within her rights. You brought up a good point about television having to be more careful with their broadcasts if Harris won. What kind of shows do you think this would affect the most? Thanks for your comment!

  3. This sounds like an example from my Media Law & Ethics class! Harris should expect that by sending Oprah copies of his book, there is a chance she will mention them on air. Wouldn’t that be his intention for sending them to her? Or could he have intentionally sent Oprah the books knowing he would be able to sue her? Our society seems to be quite sue happy these days.

    • That class made me feel like I could be a lawyer! 🙂 Yes, I think he was foolish and greedy to expect any different from Oprah. It appears he just wanted money or the opportunity to appear on her show, and is not happy with the publicity he did receive. Sue happy indeed. Thanks for your comment!

  4. I agree with Eduardo, I wouldn’t think that there would be any way for Harris to win this case. What other purpose would there be for sending his booklets to Oprah than for her to read them on her show or to promote his work? It sounds like he got himself in this situation on purpose in order to get some money out of a mogul.

    • I didn’t think of the possibility Harris may have sent the booklets to Oprah in the hope of being able to sue her. That’s interesting– and devious. Like Hilary said, our society might just be too sue happy today. If Harris did do this intentionally, he should have spent less time plotting ways to get easy money and more time planning publicity for his booklet. Thanks for you comment!

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