The Case of Celestial Copyright

The facts of this case sound more like an argument your friends might have over a bottle of wine than the basis of a law suit. If an alien came to earth and told you the secrets of the universe and you copied those into a book, could you sue someone who distributed that book for copyright infringement?

This case, Urantia Foundation v. Maaherra, 114 F.3d 955 (9th Cir. 1997), is about the Urantia Book, a compilation of questions posed to spiritual beings and their answers. The Urantia Foundation registered for copyright protection in 1956 and renewed its copyright in 1983, classifying the book as a “work for hire.” In 1990, Kristen Maaherra started distributing a study guide to the book on computer disks (remember floppy disks? Anyone? Never mind) along with the complete text of the book. The Foundation called foul.

Both the Foundation and Maaherra fully believed that the book was authored by “non-human spiritual beings described in terms such as the Divine Counselor, the Chief of the Corps of Superuniverse Personalities, and the Chief of the Archangels of Nebadon.” Shall I add that the source for all of this information was a psychiatrist in Chicago who wrote down what one of his patients told him? Oh, there’s that, too.

In the resulting copyright infringement suit, Maaherra first tried arguing that the book was not a “work of authorship” because it was written by celestial beings, not the Foundation. Without weighing in on the spiritual origins of the book, the court noted that the questions the Foundation asked the celestial beings and the way they arranged the answers was enough to show the necessary “creative spark” to entitle the book to copyright protection.

The case then turned on whether the book was a “work for hire” or a “composite work” and whether failing to use the right label on the renewal application made a difference. The court held that the “work for hire” label was wrong, but that didn’t mean the book wasn’t still protected by copyright.

If you’re looking for a very quirky introduction to the rules on what is entitled to copyright protection, look no further than the planet Nebadon.

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