June 19, 2012
The Ninth Circuit’s opinion in the L.A. Printex case offers two useful insights with respect to the manner in which courts in that circuit are to evaluate substantial similarity.
The first is a re-affirmation that a court should not evaluate the intrinsic test, involving a subjective comparison of the two works, on summary judgment. The subjective comparison should be reserved for trial. Court’s should only conduct the intrinsic test, the objective listing and comparison of similarities on summary judgment.
The second is the court’s actual application of the intrinsic test. Here is an excerpt:
C30020 is a repeating pattern of bouquets of flowers and three-leaf branches. The idea of a floral pattern depicting bouquets and branches is not protectible, and C30020 has elements that are not protectible, for example the combination of open flowers and closed buds in a single bouquet or the green color of stems and leaves. However, L.A. Printex’s original selection, coordination, and arrangement of such elements is protectible. Because there is “a wide range of expression” for selecting, coordinating, and arranging floral elements in stylized fabric designs, “copyright protection is ‘broad’ and a work will infringe if it’s ‘substantially similar’ to the copyrighted work.” That is, “there are gazillions of ways” to combine petals, buds, stems, leaves, and colors in floral designs on fabric, in contrast to the limited number of ways to, for example, “paint a red bouncy ball on black canvas” or make a lifelike glass-in-glass jellyfish sculpture. Our comparison of Defendants’ allegedly infringing design and C30020 reveals objective similarities in protectable elements. Both patterns feature two types of small bouquets of flowers, one featuring the largest flower in profile view, the other featuring the largest flower in an open-face view, and both emerging from three buds. Both patterns also depict small, three-leaf branches interspersed between the two types of bouquets. The shape and number of the flower petals and leaves are similar in the two designs. The two types of bouquets are arranged at similar angles in both designs, and the bouquets and branches are coordinated in similar spatial combinations on a grid of similar scale and layout. Moreover, the color arrangement of C30020 in white/berry is markedly similar to the color arrangement of Defendants’ design…The differences noted by the district court do not compel the conclusion that no reasonable juror could find that Defendants’ design is substantially similar to C30020. Rather, in light of the similarities described above, the differences support the opposite conclusion, that there is a genuine dispute of material fact on substantial similarity. It is true that the flowers, stems, and leaves in Defendants’ design are less detailed than those in C30020, and that Defendants’ design does not use multiple shades of color to give the flowers and leaves definition as does C30020. But a rational jury could find that these differences result from the fabric printing process generally and are “inconsequential,” or could credit Jae Nah’s assertion that these differences result in part from “print[ing] using cruder, lower quality techniques and machinery. Moreover, because we conclude that stylized fabric designs like C30020 are properly entitled to “broad” copyright protection, it is not necessary that Defendants’ design be “virtually identical” to infringe. A rational jury could find that despite some differences between Defendants’ design and C30020, the similarities in the selection, coordination, and arrangement of bouquets and three-leaf branches are sufficiently substantial to support an inference of copying. Accordingly, we hold that objective similarities in the expressive elements of Defendants’ design and C30020 present a genuine dispute of material fact under the extrinsic test.
If you don’t understand the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction, call me up or send an email. I can probably confuse you even more. Look for further discussion of this case, hopefully with pictures of the works in question, in the 2013 update of Substantial Similarity in Copyright Law.