“Help-Help-Copyright-in-Danger”: Pacific Technologies’ unsuccessful bid to claim original literary work in ‘Help Words’

In a recent decision of the Federal Court of Australia, Pacific Technologies (Australia) Pty Ltd was unsuccessful in its claim to copyright in the words “Help-Help-Driver-in-Danger-Call-Police-Ph.000”.  Therefore, the State of Victoria can safely continue using these Help Words on taxi cab driver duress alarms.

Pacific Technologies made an inauspicious start, disgruntling Justice Emmet who looked poorly on their application for adjournment given their previous delays, poor preparation and failure to instruct solicitors.  Adjournment was refused and the substantive case turned on whether, under s 32(1) of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth), the Help Words constituted an “original literary work”.

Justice Emmet gave three reasons why the Help Words did not constitute an “original literary work”:

(1)   They are not the type of words that should be afforded monopoly protection.  The Help Words constituted the setting down of several simple words, of an instructional nature, ordinary parlance, and which did no more than state the obvious.

(2)   The words did no more than state an idea.  This is a case where the expression of an idea is inseparable from its function and does not attract copyright protection.

(3)   It would be inappropriate for copyright to attach to these words. It would be too easy for a taxi driver or a passer to infringe copyright by using the words.

This case affirms that courts will generally be reluctant to find that copyright exists in short sentence or phrases, and helps to define when work will be deemed insubstantial and non-original.  It seems in this instance the Help Words are, in fact, safe.

For the full case see State of Victoria v Pacific Technologies (Australia) Pty Ltd (No. 2) – [2009] FCA 737 – BC200905926.

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