Oprah Escapes $100 Million Lawsuit Over Question About Fattest U.S. President

Oprah Winfrey - PR Portrait - 2011
Discovery Communications, Inc.

A federal judge in Pennsylvania has tossed out a book author's $100 million lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey for violating the copyright in the political booklet, How America Elects Her Presidents.

Charles Harris claimed in a lawsuit that in 2008, as Winfrey began supporting Barack Obama's presidential campaign, Harris sent 10 copies of his booklet to the The Oprah Winfrey Show in hopes of gaining publicity. He followed up with several inquiries. Harris got no response, but according to the complaint, on the February 16, 2009 show, Winfrey allegedly read aloud exact questions that were included in the book.  Harris wanted in excess of $100 million for alleged copyright infringement.

Winfrey filed a motion to dismiss, seeking sanctions for a frivolous lawsuit, saying that had the plaintiff obtained a public transcript of the show in question, he would have realized that the talk show host didn't read Harris' "exact same questions" aloud with the arguable exception of one: "Which one of our presidents weighed the most?"

During the show, titled "Oprah's Search For The Smartest and Most Talented Kids,"  Oprah brought young children on set, including one six-year-old named Graham who she said was a "first grade whiz kid who knows more about American presidents than most adults."

Oprah and Graham joshed about various presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama, before the talk show queen queried the kid about the heaviest president. Graham correctly answered it was William Howard Taft at 327 pounds.

Winfrey's motion to dismiss the lawsuit said Harris' lawyers should have known that facts about American presidents are not copyrightable. A compilation of facts based on the selection and arrangement can be copyrightable, but Winfrey pointed out that Harris didn't register his work as a compilation, and it lacked originality, among other things.

U.S. District Court Judge Jan DuBois agrees that Harris' work is "not original," and that Winfrey's use of the Fat Taft fact, even if she did learn it from Harris' book, was not an infringement.

The judge, however, determined that the plaintiff's claims were made with reasonable good faith under the circumstance, and declined to award sanctions.