Can Obscene Materials Be Copyrighted?

No, claims the plaintiff in Wong v. Hard Drive Productions, in the Northern District of California. Here’s what Judge Young of the District of Massacusetts had to say about the issue recently:

[T]t is a matter of first impression in the First Circuit, and indeed is unsettled in many circuits, whether pornography is in fact entitled to protection against copyright infringement. Copyright protection in the United States was “effectively unavailable for pornography” until the landmark decision by the Fifth Circuit in Mitchell Brothers Film Group v. Cinema Adult Theater, 604 F.2d 852, 854–55, 858 (5th Cir.1979) (holding that the Copyright Act neither explicitly nor implicitly prohibits protection of “obscene materials,” such as the films at issue there, and rejecting the defendant’s affirmative defense of “unclean hands”). See also Jartech, Inc. v. Clancy, 666 F.2d 403, 406 (9th Cir.1982) (stating, in the context of copyright infringement of a pornographic film, that “[p]ragmatism further compels a rejection of an obscenity defense” because “obscenity is a community standard which may vary to the extent that controls thereof may be dropped by a state altogether”). Compare Devils Films, Inc. v. Nectar Video, 29 F.Supp.2d 174, 175–77 (S.D.N.Y.1998) (refusing to exercise its equitable powers to issue a preliminary injunction against infringement of pornographic films and “commit the resources of the United States Marshal’s Service to support the operation of plaintiff’s pornography business,” holding that the films were “obscene” and illegally distributed through interstate commerce), with Nova Prods., Inc. v. Kisma Video, Inc., Nos. 02 Civ. 3850(HB), 02 Civ. 6277(HB), 03 Civ. 3379(HB), 2004 WL 2754685, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 1, 2004) (holding that the question of whether particular pornographic films are “obscene” is one of fact for the jury, and that, even were the films deemed to be obscene, it would not prevent their protection under a valid copyright) (citing Jartech, Inc., 666 F.2d 403; Mitchell Bros., 604 F.2d 852). Congress has never addressed the issue by amendment to the Copyright Act. See Ann Bartow, Pornography, Coercion, and Copyright Law 2.0, 10 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. L 799, 833 (2008).

Liberty Media Holdings, LLC v. Swarm Sharing Hash File AE340D0560129AFEE8D78CE07F2394C7 B5BC9C05, — F.Supp.2d —-, 2011 WL 5161453 (D.Mass. 2011) (Young, J.).