Truth, Lies, and Copyright

42 Pages Posted: 4 Aug 2018 Last revised: 9 Apr 2020

See all articles by Cathay Smith

Cathay Smith

The University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law

Date Written: June 29, 2018


Fake news may be trending right now, but fake news is not the only source of fake facts that we consume. We encounter fake facts every day in the historical or biographical books we read, the movies we watch, the maps we study, the telephone directories and dictionaries we reference, and the religious or spiritual guides we consult. While it is well-established that copyright does not protect facts because facts are discovered rather than created, fake facts are created and can often be as original and creative as fiction.

This paper is the first to offer a comprehensive analysis of copyright protection of fake facts contained in fake news and other sources. It details the different categories of fake facts we encounter today and courts’ inconsistent protection of fake facts under copyright law. Even though copyright law may technically protect fake facts as original expression fixed in a tangible medium, this paper argues that the public interest in promoting efficiency, fairness, and production of socially-valuable works justify treating fake facts as unprotectable facts under copyright law. Specifically, courts should apply copyright law’s factual estoppel doctrine to treat fake facts as unprotectable facts in infringement cases where an author previously held out fake facts as facts, with the intent that the public rely on the fake facts as facts, if the public could believe the fake facts to be true.  

Keywords: copyright, intellectual property, fake news, fake facts, estoppel, unclean hands, nonfiction, fiction, fake, reliance, misrepresentation, factual estoppel, copyright estoppel

Suggested Citation

Smith, Cathay, Truth, Lies, and Copyright (June 29, 2018). 20 Nevada Law Journal 201 (2019), Available at SSRN: or

Cathay Smith (Contact Author)

The University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law ( email )

Missoula, MT 59812-0002
United States

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