Thursday, September 01, 2005

3d Circuit copyright validity decision re registration of a "group" of things

The 3d Circuit recently decided an interesting copyright dispute involving a sculptures made to resemble large rocks inscribed with various poems. I think the court's discussion of the issue of infringement isn't that noteworthy, but its discussion of the validity of the plaintiff's registration is.

In Kay Berry, Inc. v. Taylor Gifts, Inc., No. 04-3809 (3d Cir. Aug. 30, 2005), the plaintiff created a bunch of different rock/poem sculpture products (these were mass-produced items, not, you know, "museum" art). The plaintiff registered them en masse by sending the Copyright Office a catalog containing photos of its entire line of rock/poems. The Copyright Office issued a single registration for "sculptural works with design and text."

The defendant knocked off one of the rock/poems and, when sued, argued that the registration was invalid as a "group registration" under section 408(c)(1) because they weren't "related" enough. The 3d Circuit agreed that the registration wasn't valid under the group registration rules promulgated by the Copyright Office at 37 CFR §§ 202.3(b)(4) -(9), because those rules are the only authority for registration of a "group" of related products, and they don't explicitly extend to a group of sculptural works.

The court, however, said that the registration was valid as a single work registration under 37 CFR § 202.3(b)(3), which permits a single registration of a "published work" of a single claimant such that "all copyrightable elements that are otherwise recognizable as self-contained works . . . are included in a single unit of publication." The court rejected the argument that, for a single work registration under this rule, the works had to be "related."

In a long footnote, the court directed the district court, on remand, to determine the scope of such a copyright. In particular, the court intimated the possibility that a published work containing both new and pre-existing materials may be limited in some way, perhaps to only the expressive material added by the claimant.

9th Circuit reverse confusion decision

The 9th Circuit recently decided a reverse confusion case. M2 Software, Inc. v. Madacy Entertainment, No. 03-55957 (9th Cir. Aug. 31, 2005) concerned an appeal from a jury verdict of no reverse confusion. I won't bore you with the court's discussion of each of the Sleekcraft factors and a bunch of other uninteresting issues, but what I found notable was the court's rejection of the plaintiff's argument that the reverse confusion jury instruction was too narrow.

The trial court instructed the jury that reverse confusion occurs when the "consumers doing business with the [small] senior user mistakenly believe that they are dealing with the larger junior user" (emphasis mine). The plaintiff argued that "dealing with" is too narrow; that reverse confusion also occurs if the consumers believe there is an affiliation, connection, or association between the parties. But the court said that the instruction was correct.

It seems to me that this is an unjustified narrowing of the scope of a reverse confusion claim. I think most courts agree that forward confusion (i.e, the issue in plain vanilla infringement cases) encompasses more than simply erroneous beliefs that one company is the other; it covers confusion as to association, sponsorship, affiliation, etc. Why treat reverse confusion cases any differently? I can't think of a good reason to make reverse confusion a narrower type of claim. Am I missing something?

In any event, if you're representing a defendant accused of creating reverse confusion, keep this case in mind.