Not every pattern is protected by copyright, even if creating it involved many choices

The Review Board of the U.S. Copyright Office (the Board) recently reviewed a second request by T.W.N. Industries (TWN) for reconsideration of the Registration Program’s previous denial to register two of its patterns. On October 25, 2017, the Board again denied registration to one of the patterns, Gold Wood, but granted registration to the Staggered Carbon Pattern.

TWN’s patterns are designed to be used by applying them to an object, such as an airplane interior for example.

Copyright Office

The Board described the two patterns as such:

Staggered Carbon is a geometric pattern consisting of repeating rectangular bands of different sizes, shapes, and textures, arranged in a woven pattern. The bands are two distinct gray-colored patterns. One band is dark gray with vertical lines, and the other band is light gray with darker gray lines.

Gold Wood is a two-dimensional graphic design consisting of a repeating pattern of striated gold and cream vertical lines, made to resemble a light wood grain. “

The U.S. Copyright Office had originally denied in September 2016 copyright registration to both patterns, informing TWN that they lacked the minimum amount of creative pictorial, graphic or sculptural authorship necessary for a work of visual arts to be protected by copyright.

 TMW then asked the Copyright Office to reconsider its refusal, and  explained the creative process used for both patterns, which both necessitates the use of up to three layers within Photoshop, and were hand-drawn using different brushes and strokes.The Copyright Office again denied registration, as “the elongated rectangular bands” which made up the Staggered Carbon pattern “are a common and familiar shape” and the lines making up the Gold Wood pattern were also “a common and familiar shape” and thus could not be protected by copyright. The Copyright Office also found that the Gold Wood’s features were not “combined in any way that differentiates them from their basic shape and design components,” and were a “simple configuration” not protectable by copyright as “the work as a whole consists of vertical lines in shades of gold and cream.”

TMW asked the Copyright Office to reconsider its refusals for a second time, as allowed by 37 C.F.R. § 202.5 (c), claiming that both works were original enough to be protected by copyright, which bears the question: what is originality under U.S. copyright law?

What is originality under U.S. copyright law?

Under 17 U.S.C. § 102(a), U.S. copyright protects only “original works of authorship.” The threshold for a work to be original is, however, quite low. As explained by the Supreme Court in Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc. , “[t]he sine qua non of copyright is originality. To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be original to the author. … Original, as the term is used in copyright, means only that the work was independently created by the author (as opposed to copied from other works), and that it possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity.”

Thus two cumulative conditions are necessary for a work to be protected by copyright:

–          It must have been independently created by the author and

–          It must possess at least some minimal degree of creativity

A combination of unoriginal elements can be original enough to be protected by copyright

The Board noted that [s]ome combinations of common or standard design elements may contain sufficient creativity with respect to how they are juxtaposed or arranged to support a copyright… [but that] not every combination or arrangement will be sufficient to meet this test.”

It quoted the 2003 Satawa v. Lowry 9th Circuit case, where the court explained that, while

a combination of unprotectable elements may qualify for copyright protection… not … any combination of unprotectable elements automatically qualifies for copyright protection. Our case law suggests, and we hold today, that a combination of unprotectable elements is eligible for copyright protection only if those elements are numerous enough and their selection and arrangement original enough that their combination constitutes an original work of authorship.”

The Board also quoted § 906.1 of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices on Common Geometric Shapes, which explains that “the U.S. Copyright Office will not register a work that merely consists of common geometric shapes unless the author’s use of those shapes results in a work that, as a whole, is sufficiently creative.”

Staggered Carbon is original enough to be protected by copyright

The Board found that “the combination of elements in Staggered Carbon – namely the different textures on the bands, as well as their arrangements – exhibits copyrightable authorship,” and was original enough to be protected, quoting Feist, where the Supreme Court held that only a ‘modicum’ of creativity is necessary for a work to be original.

However, only the “specific combination of textures” created by TWN are protected by copyright, not the “standard designs and other unoriginal elements.”

Gold Wood is not original enough to be protected by copyright

But even though the Board recognized that Gold Wood had been independently created, it was not creative enough to be protected by copyright, as “it consists of simple, minor variations on common shapes arranged in an obvious and uniform manner.” The Board explained further that Gold Wood “is made up of only a very few elements (monochromatic lines in a few shades of gold” arranged in an unoriginal manner (densely and with only minor and repeating variations throughout the pattern).” As explained in § 313.4(J) of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, “a work consisting of a simple combination of a few familiar symbols or designs with minor linear or spatial variations, either in two-dimensional or three-dimensional

form, cannot be registered.”

TWN argued that it had to make “specific choices from endless alternatives of shapes” to create Gold Wood. But the Board explained that “it is not the possibility of choices that determines copyrightability, but whether the resulting expression contains copyrightable authorship.”

Image is courtesy of Flicker user Tony Webster Under a CC BY2.0 license.

This post was first published on The 1709 blog.

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