Crippling Blow to Infringer: Decorative Furniture Not Merely Functional

Crippling Blow to Infringer: Decorative Furniture Not Merely Functional

When evaluating whether a particular item or object infringes someone's copyright, it is essential to determine whether the work is protectable by copyright in the first place. In many cases, the issue will raise a question regarding functionality. Is the item at issue a work of protected expression, or is it "merely" a functional item? This question is not as easy to answer as it may seem. In this Analysis, Lisa M. Tittemore examines Universal Furniture, Inc. v. Collezione Europa USA, Inc., 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 17421 (4th Cir. N.C. Aug. 20, 2010) [enhanced version available to subscribersunenhanced version available from lexisONE Free Case Law], which confronted the functionality issue in affirming a decision involving furniture design that resulted in a damages award of more than $11 million. She writes:

     In Universal Furniture, the Fourth Circuit started its analysis by noting that the "'industrial designs' of even 'aesthetically pleasing' furniture is not entitled to copyright protection." The court relied heavily on the insights of Universal's expert witness, the well-known furniture designer Thomas Moser. While concluding that many of the design elements used by Universal were in the public domain, the court agreed with Moser that the selection, coordination, adaptation, and arrangement of the design elements resulted in a unique modification and arrangement of those elements that easily crossed the low threshold for showing originality.

     The court moved on to the "more vexing question" of whether the designs were "conceptually separable from the utilitarian aspects" of the furniture, a question it approached "mindful of the nebulous standard with which the [lower] court was obliged to grapple." Under the Copyright Act, "the design of a useful article...shall be considered...a sculptural work only if, and only to the extent that, such design incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article."

     The court noted that "Congress enacted the current phrasing of the conceptual separability test in order to codify the Supreme Court's ruling in Mazer v. Stein," 347 U.S. 949, 74 S. Ct. 637, 98 L. Ed. 1096 (1954) [enhanced version / unenhanced version], which held that china statuettes of dancing figures on the bases of table lamps were protected by copyright, even though they appeared on an otherwise utilitarian object.

(citations omitted)

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