top of page
  • Writer's pictureawashyapartners

Walter v Lane [1900] A.C. 539

The Author of this case analysis is Mr. Saurav Tiwari, a second year law student pursuing B.A.LL. B, (Hons.) from Dharmashastra National Law University, Jabalpur.


Walter v Lane, was a House of Lords decision on the question of Authorship under the Copyright Act 1842. It was recognized as an important case for the concept of ‘originality’ in copyright law and has been considered as an early example of the sweat of the brow doctrine. In this case, there was an application by the proprietors of The Times newspaper for an injunction to restrain the defendant from infringing their copyright. The dispute centered around the publication of a book titled "Appreciations and Addresses, Delivered by Lord Rosebery," which contained reports of speeches made by Lord Rosebery. In 1896 and 1898, reporters on the staff of The Times attended and on various occasions composed descriptions of meetings, including verbatim reports of Lord Rosebery’s speeches. These speeches were published in The Times under 5 different titles. The defendant published the book, containing almost verbatim copies of The Times’ reports of those five speeches. Although the controversy arose over the lack of speech protection, as well as the general legal protection of unpublished works inhibiting journalism and overturning the definition of authorship, paradoxically it is now referred to as a legal principle that was not part of the law at the time: originality. The crux of the case lay in determining whether the reporters' efforts constituted an original literary work under the Copyright Act of 1842, thereby granting them copyright protection.


The case revolved around several key issues concerning copyright law and the definition of authorship. Here's a detailed description of the issues at the heart of the case:

  • Whether the labor, skill, and judgment involved in reporting and transcribing speeches were sufficient to establish “authorship” under the Copyright Act of 1842?

  • Whether a speech, once transcribed, could be considered a “literary work” eligible for copyright protection, even if it was originally an oral address by Lord Rosebery?

The case also touched upon the 'sweat of the brow' doctrine, which suggests that extensive effort and labor can confer copyright, even if intellectual creativity is minimal. These issues were crucial in determining the scope of copyright protection and set a precedent for future cases involving the concept of originality and the extent of labor and skill required for a work to be considered for copyright.

Arguments advanced by:

a. Petitioner

In the case of Walter v Lane, the petitioners, who were the proprietors of The Times newspaper, presented compelling arguments which are as follows:

  • The work of their reporters in transcribing Lord Rosebery's speeches involved significant intellectual labor and skill hence bringing the element of novelty and innovation. 

  • This kind of work requires a lot more skill than listing names and addresses in a directory for a translator to copyright. 

  • The petitioners drew parallels to Printed lists of stock exchange rates and quotations that were also considered literature and the subject of copyright. 

  • The discretion to decide on punctuation and convey the reactions of the audience. 

  • The process of taking down speeches and transcribing them, they argued, constituted original work deserving of copyright protection under the Literary Copyright Act of 1842. 

  • The petitioner contended that Lord Rosebery is not the Author of these speeches as “Copyright is the right to multiply copies of a work already published”, and to be the owner of the Copyright the author must have the original copy. 

It is contended by the Plaintiffs that the “author” of the reports of speeches is not the one who makes the speeches, but the one who first reduces them to writing, though, if he writes on behalf of another person, the law gives copyright to that other person. 

b. Respondent 

  • The respondent, John Lane, contended that no questions of ownership or registration are raised, but the defendant claims the transcripts of public appearances are not copyrighted and that he is entitled to copy those reports. 

  • The defense argued that the reporters' transcriptions of Lord Rosebery's speeches did not meet the threshold of originality required for copyright protection. 

  • They posited that the act of reporting was a mechanical operation akin to the workings of a phonograph, which records sounds without any creative input or authorship. “Reporters are not authors: they simply copy from dictation.” The composers of these reports have only made copies of the speeches: they have not bestowed brainwork upon them.

  • They maintained that since the speeches were delivered in public, they were in the public domain and could not be subjected to copyright as they were not the intellectual property of any individual or entity. 

  • It has been held that newspapers come within s. 18 of the Copyright Act, 1842, but there is no copyright in mere news. This perspective challenged the 'sweat of the brow' doctrine, suggesting that mere laborious effort, without creative input, should not be sufficient to establish copyright. 

  • The defense also highlighted that the reporters' work, while skillful, did not transform the speeches into original “literary works” that could be copyrighted. 

  • Lord Rosebery was the only possible ‘author’ and he had given the speeches to the public, in the sense discussed by the court in Nicols v Pitman. 

  • The respondent's arguments and the cases cited aimed to draw a clear line between transcription and authorship, arguing that the former does not automatically lead to the latter. 


In this case, the main question raised before the House of Lords is “Whether the reporters who transcribed and edited speeches made by a prominent politician for The Times newspaper were authors under the Copyright Act.” The House of Lords, by a majority, held that the reporters of The Times newspaper were indeed authors under the Copyright Act 1842. For Lord Brompton, it was crucial that the “preparation of the reports involved significant intellectual skill and brain labor beyond the mere mechanical operation of writing.” By a decision of 4-1, the House of Lords ruled that the reporters who transcribed Lord Rosebery's speeches were authors under copyright law because the preparation of their reports required considerable intellectual skill and brain work in addition to mechanical writing. The decision established that the reporters' work, which included decisions on punctuation and how to convey the audience's reactions, constituted an original work deserving of copyright protection. This set the "originality" threshold for future copyright cases, affirming that the types of labor protected by copyright law include those that are products of editing, re-creation, preservation, conservation, or reconstruction where they are the result of intellectual skill and labor. This concept of "originality" would later be further developed in the Copyright Act of 1911, which defined "original" as meaning that the work was the author's own intellectual creation.

Key Observations of the Judge

The majority of the House of Lords, comprising Earl of Halsbury L.C., Lord Davey, Lord James of Hereford, and Lord Brampton, held that the reporters' work involved sufficient labor, skill, and judgment to warrant copyright protection. Lord James considered the question whether, under the terms of the 1842 Act, a person producing unoriginal literature could still be an author. He thought that it depends on the nature of the ability and art of the journalist; it should be more than just dictation. The report can be "acquired under special difficulties" while maintaining accuracy when eliminating a fast speaker, obtaining material in a difficult situation, or translating a foreign language. Thus, he concluded that ‘under the conditions existing’ in the case, the reporters were authors under the 1842 Act. Lord Brompton found that The Times' reports of speeches contained considerable intellectual ability and brain-work beyond mere mechanical writing. Lord Robertson, on the other hand, disagreed, finding it difficult to understand the quality of an editor's authorship, comparing editors to phonographs and suggesting that there was no authorship, although much skill was required. Despite this disagreement, the majority opinion prevailed, setting a precedent for future cases and debates about the validity of the case and the European standard of originality. The decision in Walter v Lane has since been regarded as the authority on the concept of originality in English copyright law.

Ratio laid down

The ratio decidendi, or the legal principle established in the case of Walter v Lane, that copyright doesn’t depend on how “literary” or creative a work is. Instead, it focuses on whether the work required more than just basic writing skill. The reporters’ transcriptions of Lord Rosebery’s speeches were considered original enough for copyright because they involved intellectual effort beyond mere mechanical writing. This principle set the "originality" threshold for future copyright cases, affirming that the types of labor protected by copyright law include those that are products of editing, re-creation, preservation, conservation, or reconstruction where they are the result of intellectual skill and labor.

Key judgments cited

The case of Walter v Lane references several case laws, some of which are:

  • Abernethy v Hutchinson: A case involving the publication of lectures delivered at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

  • Macklin v Richardson: A case concerning the publication of a play’s manuscript without consent.

  • Express Newspapers v News(UK): A case involving newspapers rewriting reports of interviews published in other newspapers.

Sawkins v Hyperion: A case where a professor of musicology rendered music composed in the seventeenth century by Michel-Richard de Lalande playable by modern instruments. This case cited Walter v Lane as positive authority on originality of works.

Author's Insights

“Originality is a cornerstone of contemporary copyright law; in order to receive protection, works must be ‘original’.” The court's decision in Walter v Lane emphasized the importance of originality in copyright law, which remains a fundamental principle. This departed from the traditional view that only written works that required more than mere writing skills could be considered original. The decision showed how different copyrighted works can arise in relation to spoken and written recordings and emphasized the importance of the forms of work protected by copyright law. Walter v Lane was a major turning point in copyright law because it established the very general doctrine that a work used to create a work, regardless of its originality or creativity, can receive copyright protection. 


  1. [1900] AC 539.

  2. Copyright Law Amendment Act, 1842, 5 & 6 Vict., c.45.

  3. Gendreau, Ysolde (2009). An Emerging Intellectual Property Paradigm: Perspectives from Canada. Edward Elgar Publishing. pp. 151–152. ISBN 1847205976.

  4. Walter v. Lane, [1899] 2 Ch 749, 5 & 6 Vict c 45, p. 749.

  5. William Cornish, ‘Conserving Culture and Copyright: A Partial History’ (2009) 13 Edinburgh L Rev 8, 17 (noting Walter v Lane’s interesting ‘long after-life in defining what could be a literary work for copyright purposes, even though afterwards the 1911 Copyright Act specified, for the first time, that the literary work had to be “original”’).


  7. Kelly v. Morris, (1866) L. R. 1 Eq. 697.

  8. Exchange Telegraph Co. v. Gregory & Co. (1896) 1 Q. B. 147, 157. 

  9. Jefferys v. Boosey (1854) 4 H. L. C. 815, 954.

  10. Barbara Lauriat, Walter v Lane (1900), King’s College London Dickson Poon School of Law, Legal Studies Research Paper Series: Paper No. 2017-08.

  11. Walter v. Lane, [1899] at p. 752.

  12. Trade Auxiliary Co. v. Middlesborough and District Tradesmen’s Protection Association, 40 Ch. D. 425, 435.

  13. Deborah (2023) Walter V Lane. Available at: (Accessed: 04 May 2024).

  14. Aplin, Tanya; Davis, Jennifer. Intellectual Property Law: Text and Materials. Oxford University Press. p. 73.

  15. Abernethy v Hutchinson (1825) 1 Hall & Twells 28, 39.

  16. Macklin v Richardson (1770) 1 Amb 694 (Ch).

  17. Express Newspapers v News (UK) [1989] 1 WLR 1320, 1326.

  18. Sawkins v Hyperion [77].

  19. The origins of originality: The true story of walter v lane: Faculty of Law, Victoria University of Wellington. Available at: (Accessed: 05 May 2024).

56 views0 comments


bottom of page