Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Federal Circuit decision on copyright and design patent issues concerning furniture design

The Federal Circuit recently reversed a district court summary judgment ruling of no copyright infringement and no design patent infringement in a case involving competing furniture. Amini Innovation Corp. v. Anthony California, Inc., No. 05-1159 (Fed. Cir. March 3, 2006) concerned copyright registrations for "carved ornamental woodwork" on furniture items and a design patent on a bed frame.

On the copyright claim, the Federal Circuit (applying 9th Circuit precedent) noted that a plaintiff has to show ownership of a copyright and copying of protected expression. Since there was no evidence of literal copying, the court looked to the "access + substantial similarity" indirect way of showing copying. And in the 9th Circuit, the more access, the less a plaintiff needs to show on substantial similarity. Since there wasn't much evidence of access, the court required "striking" similarity. But only similarity in expression counts, and since purely utilitarian articles don't receive copyright protection, the court focused solely on the carvings themselves.

Under the 9th Circuit's two-part "extrinsic/intrinsic" test for substantial similarity, courts must first perform the "extrinsic" test: an "objective comparison of specific expressive elements," in which the court analytically dissects the work (and maybe takes expert testimony). If under this test the two works "share a similarity of ideas and expression as measured by external, objective criteria," courts are then to apply the "intrinsic" test, which asks whether an ordinary reasonable audience would find substantial similarity in the "total concept and feel of the works."

The Federal Circuit was OK with the district judge's performance of the extrinsic test, but held that the district judge went wrong when he performed the intrinsic test himself, deciding "the fact intensive question of the total concept and feel of the carvings in the furniture." The Federal Circuit believed that a reasonable jury could have determined that there was a substantial similarity in the total concept and feel of the works.

As to the design patent, the Federal Circuit held that the district court's claim construction focused too much on the details of the ornamentation rather than the overall design of the bed post. Further, the Federal Circuit found again that the district court had usurped the jury function in performing an element-by-element analysis in determining that no reasonable jury could have found that the accused product was substantially similar. Instead, the district court was supposed to have analyzed "the design as a whole from the perspective of an ordinary observer."

I don't know about you, but to me these types of cases are analytical minefields.

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