924 Copyright Law Protects the Design Aspects of a Useful Article
“The statute does not protect useful articles as such.” Star Athletica, 137 S. Ct. at 1008. Nor does it protect the overall form, shape, or configuration of a useful article. See id. at 1010, 1014. But the pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features of the design of a useful article may be eligible for copyright protection if those features can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article. See id. at 1007.
Congress, the Supreme Court, and the U.S. Copyright Office interchangeably refer to “useful articles” as “useful objects,” “industrial articles,” “industrial products,” or “industrial designs.” Star Athletica, 137 S. Ct. at 1007; Mazer, 347 U.S. at 218-19; H.R. REP. NO. 94-1476, at 55 (1976), reprinted in 1976 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 5668; REPORT OF THE REGISTER OF COPYRIGHTS ON THE GENERAL REVISION OF THE U.S. COPYRIGHT LAW at 12 (1961).
“The line between art and industrial design . . . is often difficult to draw.” Star Athletica, 137 S. Ct. at 1007. The Copyright Act protects “applied art,” which is defined as “art employed in the decoration, design, or execution of useful objects, or those arts or crafts that have a primarily utilitarian function, or the designs and decorations used in these arts.” Id. at 1014 (quotations and citations omitted); H.R. REP. NO. 94-1476, at 54 (noting that “works of ‘applied art’ encompass all original pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works that are intended to be or have been embodied in useful articles”), reprinted in 1976 U.S.C.C.A.N at 5667.
But the statute draws a clear distinction “between copyrightable works of applied art and uncopyrighted works of industrial design.” H.R. REP. NO. 94-1476, at 55, reprinted in 1976 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 5668. Specifically, the “design of a useful article shall be considered a pictorial, graphic, or 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.” 17 U.S.C. § 101 (definition of “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works”).
NOTE: As mentioned in Section 906.10, the copyright law also limits the scope of protection for works of artistic craftsmanship. Specifically, the law protects the “form” of a work of artistic craftsmanship, but it does not protect “the mechanical or utilitarian aspects” of such works. Id. “Works of artistic craftsmanship” and the design of a useful article are considered separate and distinct categories of authorship for purposes of registration. For a detailed discussion of the differences between these types of works, see Section 925.3.
This Section provides a definition and discussion of the terms “useful article” and the “design of a useful article.” It describes the “separability test,” which is a “special rule for copyrighting a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work [that has been] incorporated into a ‘useful article.'” Star Athletica, 137 S. Ct. at 1008, 1011. It also discusses issues that commonly arise in connection with such works.