A Spanish man using the pseudonym "Frikidoctor" has
been posting videos to a major video-sharing web site that detail
the events of several upcoming episodes of a popular medieval
fantasy TV series, including some key plot twists.
Frikidoctor's video "predictions" (which later turned
out to be remarkably accurate) were also translated to English and
posted to Reddit. At some point, the videos had been taken down
from the web site, marked with "copyright claim by [a major
cable TV network]." Reportedly, the network is asserting that
these videos are infringing on its copyright even if some of the
videos do not contain any actual video footage or stills from their
hit series. After the videos were removed, Redditors began fervent
discussions about whether or not the network was entitled to remove
those videos. Some legal experts claim that by giving detailed plot
information, one could possibly be liable for copyright
infringement. This is, however, not clear. Interestingly, the web
site has since restored the videos.
Copyright Protection Does Not Extend to Ideas
In principle, copyright protection does not extend to
information and ideas themselves. The protection only covers the
specific form or manner in which information or ideas are expressed
(e.g., a book, play or film).
However, the German Federal Supreme Court affirmed in its Laras
Tochter decision that, under the German copyright regime,
the protection afforded to a work by copyright went beyond the
concrete textual representation of a thought. Rather, the copyright
protection extended to components of the work that lie in the
telling of the story, in the individual traits and roles of the
characters involved and in the arrangement of scenes and scenery.
Accordingly, the originality test vested in sec. 2 para. 1 No. 1 of
the German Copyright Act (UrhG) did not confine itself to the written
word, but also to plot, characters and scenes, as long as they are
each original enough to be protectable. Basic plotlines (e.g., a
love story about two young people from rival families), however,
are merely considered ideas and, therefore, not copyrightable.
But Could Plot Elements Be Copyrightable?
Assuming that the TV series' plotline is in fact
copyrightable, the question remains of whether spoiling single
elements of the plotline could be infringing under the applicable
national copyright regimes. Where literal similarities between
storylines are concerned, even small textual elements are
considered to be copyrightable on their own. For example,
reproducing an 11-word passage of a novel could be considered
copyright infringing—provided, of course, that one does not
act within the scope of copyright limitations and exceptions (e.g.,
This assumption does, however, not necessarily apply in the same
way to non-textual elements, when literal similarities between the
works are not at issue. In the case of so-called
"non-literal" similarities between works, it is unclear
whether and, if so, under what circumstances, single plot elements
could be copyrightable on their own.
Does spoiling plot details amount to copyright infringement?
That question cannot yet be answered with precision. Lawmakers and
courts have not yet provided us with sufficient guidelines to
address the issue. The only reasonable answer for now is that, yes,
in some cases single plot elements could be copyrightable on their
own, depending on the circumstances.
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Mayer Brown article provides information and comments on legal
issues and developments of interest. The foregoing is not a
comprehensive treatment of the subject matter covered and is not
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legal advice before taking any action with respect to the matters
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On 8 September 2016 (C-160/15), the CJEU ruled that the posting of a hyperlink to copyright-protected works located on another website does not constitute copyright infringement when the link poster does not seek financial gain.
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