Sixth Circuit Affirms That Portions Of Company’s Training Guides Are Protected by Copyright
Many of our clients and potential clients have questions about the intellectual property rights that may be available for training guides or instruction manuals that are developed by their company. Any potential rights primarily come from copyright law, where copyright protection is available for “original works of authorship.” 17 U.S.C. § 102. A recent jury trial in Tennessee that later went up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit provides an in-depth analysis of the copyright issues involved with training manuals that may have been reproduced and/or used by a third party. Hiller, LLC v. Success Grp. Int’l Learning All., LLC., 979 F.3d 620 (6th Cir. 2020).
The plaintiff, Hiller, LLC, provides plumbing, heating, cooling, and electrical services in Tennessee and employs around 400 service technicians. See id. at 623. Hiller joined Success Group International, an organization that offers management advice and conducts training courses for its members using manuals (“Manuals”) that were copyrighted by Clockwork (owner of Success Group). See id. In 2015, Hiller hired a third party to create a new training guide (“Guide”) to be used at Hiller. See id. at 623-24. To create this Guide, a workshop was scheduled to generate ideas and comments from participants, including executives and employees from Hiller and a representative from Success Group. See id. The participants referred to at least one of the Manuals for ideas during the workshop. Not long after completion of the Guide, Success Group conducted a class called “Service Essentials” using a workbook that closely resembled the Guide. See id. at 625. Hiller then ended its membership in Success Group, demanded that Success Group stop using the “Service Essentials” workbook, registered its copyright in the Guide, and sued Success Group for copyright infringement. See id. Clockwork then intervened in the case as the copyright owner of the Manuals.
After a seven-day trial, the jury concluded that Hiller had a valid copyright in the Guide and that the “Service Essentials” workbook copied protected elements from the Guide. See id. at 625. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit initially examined Success Group’s argument that the Guide did not contain enough originality to meet the copyright threshold due to the use of ideas and materials from the Manuals. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, “[o]riginal, as the term is used in copyright, means only that the work was independently created by the author (as opposed to copied from other works), and that it possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity.” See Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 345 (1991). The Sixth Circuit agreed with the jury that the Guide’s choices regarding selection and organization of material met the originality threshold for copyright protection. Hiller, 979 F.3d at 626. Thus, Hiller owns a valid copyright in any original portions of the Guide that do not incorporate copyright protected elements from the Manuals.
As the copyright owner of the Manuals, Clockwork then argued that Hiller should lose copyright protection for the entire Guide because Hiller incorporated copyrighted materials and underlying ideas from the Manuals. However, the Court ruled that many of the similarities between the Guide and Manuals related to short phrases or underlying ideas merged with expressions that are not protectable under copyright law (e.g., advising technicians to “park on the street,” establish “eye contact,” wear “shoe covers”). See id. at 628. The alleged incorporation of these underlying ideas from the Manuals did not prevent Hiller from obtaining copyright protection in the original portions of the Guide. The Sixth Circuit ultimately affirmed the jury’s conclusion of copyright infringement in favor of Hiller.
Copyright law does not prevent others from using short phrases or underlying ideas that may be found in training guides or instruction manuals, including procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, and concepts. However, original content and materials may be protected, so if you can prove originality, then you may have a viable copyright claim against an unauthorized infringer.
The Opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit can be found here: Opinion
Dustin Mauck focuses his practice on intellectual property and technology disputes, counseling, and licensing.
RegitzMauck PLLC is an intellectual property boutique based in Dallas, Texas. The firm focuses on providing value-based legal services to cost-conscious clients seeking high quality legal representation in intellectual property, cybersecurity, and data privacy matters and disputes.