“Help Help Driver in Danger”: no copyright to the rescue!
State of Victoria v Pacific Technologies (Australia) Pty Ltd (No.2)  FCA 737 (10/06/09)
Background to the case
Pacific Technologies (Australia) Pty Ltd (“Pacific Technologies”) created the words “Help-Help-Driver-in-Danger-Call-Police-Ph.000” (“the Help Words”) as a repeat message to be displayed by cab drivers for a driver duress alarm display.
The matter came before the Federal Court following a directions hearing in the Copyright Tribunal of Australia in respect of a reference to the Tribunal by Pacific Technologies. In the Tribunal, Pacific Technologies claimed that it was the author of the Help Words and that copyright subsists in the Help Words.
Pacific Technologies sought reasonable remuneration from the State of Victoria for the use of the Help Words on the basis that the Help Words constituted an original literary work. Before the amount of any reasonable remuneration was determined, Justice Emmett considered, as a preliminary question, whether copyright subsisted in the Help Words.
Justice Emmett held that the Help Words did not constitute an original literary work. Specifically, Justice Emmett noted that:
- Generally, short sentences, including titles, slogans and other short phrases have consistently been refused protection both in Australia and the United Kingdom. Examples of such short sentences refused copyright protection included “Where there’s a will there’s a way”, “The Lawyers Diary 1986” and “Opportunity Knocks”. Such works are too insubstantial or short to qualify as a literary work.
- Even though skill and labour has been expended on the creation of the Help Words, the purpose of the Copyright Act is not to protect original skill and labour. The Help Words are not a form of literary expression. They are no more than a simple instruction.
- Copyright protects the expression of ideas and not the ideas themselves. The Help Words “simply indicate a desire to convey the notion that a taxi driver in duress seeks urgent assistance. They do no more than state an idea. The expression is inseparable from the fundamental idea that is being conveyed by the words”.
- From a public policy perspective, it would be inappropriate for copyright to subsist in the Help Words otherwise a taxi driver in trouble who had pressed the duress alarm to display the Help Words or a passerby repeating the Help Words to the authorities may be found to infringe copyright.
This case was heard before the High Court handed down its decision on the IceTV case. However, Justice Emmett’s findings are consistent with the IceTV decision.