Law School Case Brief
Yankee Candle Co. v. Bridgewater Candle Co. - 259 F.3d 25 (1st Cir. 2001)
Dissection analysis is an appropriate method of evaluating substantial similarity even when actual copying has occurred. By dissecting the accused work and identifying those features which are protected the court can also determine those aspects of the work that should be considered in the comparative analysis under the ordinary observer test. Second, courts apply the doctrines of merger and scene-a-faire to determine how substantially similar the copy must be to infringe.
Plaintiff Yankee Candle Company (Yankee), a leading manufacturer of scented candles, sued its competitor Defendant Bridgewater Candle Company (Bridgewater) alleging copyright infringement and trade dress infringement under federal law, as well as on state claims of common law trade dress infringement, tortious interference, and deceptive trade practices under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A. Yankee claimed that Bridgewater has infringed its copyright on the labels of nine candle fragrances. The district court, proceeding in the following manner, concluded that Bridgewater's labels were non-infringing as a matter of law. First, applying the doctrines of "merger" and "scene-a-faire," the court determined that, to prevail, Yankee had to show that Bridgewater's labels were "nearly identical" to Yankee's. Second, in making this comparison, the district court ignored "certain similarities" that it viewed as "crude, physical elements" not entitled to copyright protection, such as the label's rectangular shape, its gold border, and the use of a full-bleed style of photography. Third, the court applied the "ordinary observer" test to the remaining elements of the copyrighted label, ultimately concluding that no reasonable juror could conclude that any of the Bridgewater labels were substantially similar to the corresponding Yankee label. Plaintiff Yankee sought appellate review, claiming that the district court erred by ignoring its proffered evidence of actual copying. As a result, says Yankee, the court incorrectly engaged in a point-by-point comparison of protected elements as opposed to a broader determination based on the "total look and feel" of the entire label.
Did the district court err in holding that Bridgewater had not infringed upon Yankee's copyright?
According to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in order to prevail on a claim of copyright infringement, the plaintiff must show both ownership of a valid copyright and illicit copying. There was no issue that Yankee retained valid copyrights on the nine candle labels in question. As to the second requirement, the Court conducted a two-part test to determine if illicit copying has occurred. First, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant copied the plaintiff's copyrighted work, either directly or through indirect evidence. Second, the plaintiff must prove that the copying of the copyrighted material was so extensive that it rendered the infringing and copyrighted works "substantially similar." In determining what aspects of the Yankee labels are protected under copyright law, the Court dissected the work to remove those aspects not protected by copyright. According to the Court, dissection analysis was an appropriate method of evaluating substantial similarity even when actual copying has occurred. After dissecting the work, the Court applied the doctrines of merger and scene-a-faire to determine how "substantially similar" the copy must be to infringe. Similar to the district court’s findings, the Court found that Yankee’s title plate, border elements, and style of photography were not protected. After accounting for the unprotected elements of the Yankee label and the constraints of the merger doctrine, the Court held that the Bridgewater label was not substantially similar to the Yankee label. Hence, the grant of summary judgment in favor of Bridgewater was affirmed.
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