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The immediate effect of copyright law is to secure a fair return for an "author's" creative labor. But the ultimate aim is, by this incentive, to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good.
Plaintiff Richard Satava is a glass artist from California. In the late 1980s, Satava was inspired by the jellyfish display at an aquarium. He began experimenting with jellyfish sculptures in the glass-in-glass medium and, in 1990, began selling glass-in-glass jellyfish sculptures. The sculptures sold well, and Satava made more of them. By 2002, Satava was designing and creating about 300 jellyfish sculptures each month. Satava's sculptures are sold in galleries and gift shops in 40 states, and they sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on size. Satava has registered several of his works with the Register of Copyrights. During the 1990s, defendant Christopher Lowry, a glass artist from Hawai'i, also began making glass-in-glass jellyfish sculptures. Lowry's sculptures look like Satava's, and many people confuse them. Satava sued Lowry alleging copyright infringement. The district court granted Satava’s request for preliminary injunction, and Lowry appealed.
Does the plaintiff artist possess a protected copyright over jellyfish sculptures?
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that plaintiff could not prevent others from copying aspects of his sculptures resulting from either jellyfish physiology or from their depiction in the glass-in-glass medium because he failed to satisfy the originality requirement. Plaintiff's glass-in-glass jellyfish sculptures, though beautiful, combined several unprotectable ideas and standard elements. These elements were part of the public domain. They were the common property of all, and plaintiff could not use copyright law to seize them for his exclusive use.