Addressing a factually complex copyright dispute and a laches issue of first impression, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part a district court ruling that the Church of Scientology (the Church) did not infringe a salesman’s copyrighted book used in the Church’s seminars. Peter Letterese and Assoc., Inc. v. World Institute of Scientology Enterprises, et al., Case No. 05-15129, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 14496 (11th Cir., July 8, 2008) (Tjoflat, J.).

The copyrighted work in question is a book by Les Dane entitled Big League Sales Closing Techniques (Big League Sales), which pinpointed effective sales techniques. The book was properly copyrighted and eventually used by the Church of Scientology (the Church) in both public and private courses (respectively the Sales Course and the Church Course) with the permission of its author. The Sales Course materials were widely disseminated, while the Church Course was solely used by the Church in seminars and workshops.

Peter Letterese (an off-and-on member of the Church who at the time of the suit had been excommunicated from the Church) acquired the exclusive rights to Dane’s literary works through a written contract with Dane’s heirs in 1993. Letterese brought suit alleging that the Church was using the works in violation of its copyrights.

Pursuant to general established principles of copyright law, the court required that the plaintiff prove the two basic elements of a copyright infringement claim: a copyrightable work and copying of protected elements of the work. The court first held that although Big League Sales taught well-known sales techniques, any original expression used to describe those techniques falls squarely into the realm of copyright. The court then considered whether the Church copied Big League Sales, and concluded that it did, finding that the Church’s seminars and workshops used the chapter titles and section headings that were the “heart” of the book and that the copying was not de minimus, since the Church expressly taught the content of the book, even without extensive literal copying.

After establishing that there was sufficient evidence to preclude the lower court’s summary judgment of non-infringement, the court considered the Church’s various affirmative defenses, including that it was making a fair use of the work and alternatively, that Letterese’s claims were barred by laches. The court held that the unrestricted and widespread dissemination of the Sales Course—a use that is not transformative of the book and may be regarded as appropriating “the heart” of its expression—namely, the selection and structure of sales techniques and distinctive descriptions thereof, may well usurp the potential market for Big League Sales and derivative works and is not a “fair use.” However, since Letterese stipulated the Church course was not a potential market in competition with his own opportunity, the Church course was deemed a “fair use.”

Finally, in an issue of first impression, the court held that injunctive and prospective relief for copyright infringement was not barred by the equitable doctrine of laches even where the plaintiff “slept on its rights.” While laches could bar damages beyond the three-year statute of limitations, here, where plaintiff sought only prospective relief, it was not barred.

Practice Note: Copying even small portions of a copyrighted work can result in infringement when the infringing work impacts the potential market for the copyrighted work.