Wednesday, July 13, 2005

5th Circuit decision on copyrightability of garment designs

In Galiano v. Harrah's Operating Co., Inc., No. 04-30521, -30806 (5th Cir. July 8, 2005), the 5th Circuit addressed the copyrightability of clothing designs.

The case involved uniforms for casino employees. The plaintiff, an independent clothing designer, designed them for Harrah's, and Harrah's began ordering the plaintiff-designed uniforms from third-party clothing suppliers, since the plaintiff didn't have the capacity to manufacture the uniforms. After the contract between the plaintiff and Harrah's ended, Harrah's kept ordering plaintiff-designed uniforms from the suppliers. The designer somehow felt aggrieved by this--the opinion doesn't explain exactly why--and so she sued, "weaving" her law "suit" out of the "fabric" of copyright law.

All agreed that the uniform designs were very creative, but the district court nevertheless found the copyright claim "torn": it held that the designs were not entitled to copyright protection because the uniforms' artistic elements weren't conceptually separable from their utilitarian aspects. "Dressing up" the issue in this fashion, the district court held that the definition of "pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works" (17 USC § 101) didn't "fit". Under this definition, copyright protection "vests" in useful articles only if the design of them "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."

There are many variants of the "conceptual separability test" out there, including the 7th Circuit's recent and lengthy decision in Pivot Point International, Inc. v. Charlene Products, Inc., 372 F.3d 913 (7th Cir. 2004), but the 5th Circuit said none of these "one-size-fits-all" tests really "suited" the case, and so "skirted" around the question of whether to adopt a general test. Instead, it decided to "fashion" a rule specifically for, and explicitly limited to, garment design cases only: the likelihood-of-marketability test.

Under the new likelihood of marketability test, a garment design is entitled to copyright protection upon a showing that it has "actual or potential market value as a stand-alone piece of artwork," (Slip Op. at 10), i.e., "the capacity of the item to moonlight as a piece of marketable artwork." (Id.) Because the plaintiff had made no showing under this newly-adopted test--but who knows what was in her "briefs"--the case against her was all but "sewn up": the 5th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in Harrah's favor.

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