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Conflicting Copyright Claims Give GI Doctor Sour Stomach

Doctor's Gastroenterology Certification Study Guide Targeted by Competing Copyright Claims

Dr. Theodore W. James ("James") filed a Complaint against the Wyanoke Group, Inc. ("Wyanoke") on July 16th, 2020. The Complaint explains how, following the death of his young son who had Down's Syndrome, James wanted to create a scholarship to benefit children with Down's Syndrome as they enter adulthood. To help fund this scholarship and to help him through the grieving process, James wrote Quantum Board Review ("Quantum"), a study guide for doctors seeking to become board-certified in gastroenterology. Instead of creating a guide teaching the entire field of gastroenterology or one based on vignette examples (the two common approaches to such a guide), James tried to build his book using only the facts that he considered most important in preparing for the exam. On May 1, 2020, James made Quantum available for purchase online.

Soon after making Quantum available, James received notice from the purported author (the "Author") of similar study guides published by Wyanoke that certain content from Quantum infringed on the Author's works (though the works themselves assert that the Author has no proprietary or financial interest in the content). According to the Complaint, rather than disputing the Author's claims, James, under the mental stress caused by grief for his son's death and by the pressures of working as a medical professional during the COVID-19 pandemic, chose to simply to cease distributing his book. He hoped that this would end the matter. Two days later, James learned that the Author had asserted the infringement claims to James's employer, the University of North Carolina (the "UNC"). According to James, UNC investigated the claims.

Around this same time, James received notice from a hospital in California (the "Hospital") claiming that it owned the rights to the disputed material. Apparently under great stress, James acceded to the Hospital's settlement offer, though he later regretted doing so. The offer required him to publish an apology for using the disputed content without permission and to encourage purchasers of his book to destroy it.

Less than two weeks later, James received separate notice from Wyanoke that Quantum infringed on content in books published by Wyanoke. According to the Complaint, this claim was at odds with the claims asserted by the Hospital. Wyanoke apparently demanded that James admit online that the content came from its books and that he direct web users to Wyanoke materials in the future. James subsequently filed his Complaint against Wyanoke, seeking declaratory judgement that Quantum did not infringe on Wyanoke's intellectual property.

The Complaint explains that medical books of the type concerned here often make limited, uncredited use of material from other medical books. In fact, the Complaint alleges, the material at issue did not originate with Wyanoke but was in turn taken in this manner by Wyanoke from other medical texts. It asserts that uses like James's should be excused as de minimus, or excused as fair use. Further, the Complaint points out that most of the supposedly infringing material is factual or fact-based and is thus not subject to copyright protection in the first place.

Wyanoke has yet to file a response to James's complaint. The court has selected the case for mediation. Updates will be shared as they become available.