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Young and Slavina Win Appeal of a Copyright Infringement Case

July 31, 2013

Steven L. Young (Partner-White Plains) and Jana A. Slavina (Associate-White Plains) secured an appellate victory from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a copyright infringement case. The plaintiff, an internationally renowned lighting and accessory design company, claimed that a Las Vegas hotel misappropriated its proprietary design and “knocked off” their lighting fixtures after purchasing them for the model room. The plaintiff claimed that the defendants – the owner, two design professionals, and the firm’s client, the procurement agent for the hotel owner  -  enticed the plaintiff to provide plans and specifications for the fixtures by allegedly representing that the bidding mechanism was essentially a formality required by the project’s senior financing sources, and that the plaintiff was the likely candidate and most favored to win the bid.  The plaintiff brought a copyright violation claim and asserted other business torts in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, which dismissed the complaint with prejudice on our pre-answer motion to dismiss, and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims. The plaintiff appealed.

In affirming the Southern District’s decision, the Second Circuit noted that “useful articles”, i.e. items that have “an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information,” are protected by the Copyright Act “only if, and only to the extent that, their 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 found that the plaintiff did not plead sufficient facts to make it plausible that the light fixtures in question had either physically or conceptually separable elements that were entitled to copyright protection.

With respect to the plaintiff's claim that the light fixtures were copyrightable as a whole due to the visual impact of the fixtures, which the plaintiff equated to sculptures that were primarily a coveted decor item rather then a lighting fixture, the Second Circuit held that “one may not copyright the general shape of a lamp, because it’s overall shape contributes to its ability to illuminate the reaches of the room.”

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