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Useful Articles and Conceptual Separability Doctrine: Preserving the Free Flow of Ideas While Incentivizing Creative Endeavors

November 13, 2018

This article will discuss the law of copyright, a familiar concept with broad applications for businesses. As the article will explain, copyright law is often less than straightforward; although copyright protections are often wide-ranging, there are several important limits to the scope of these protections. One of these limits involves so-called “useful articles” – creative works that have both creative and functional elements (for instance, an ornately-designed trash can that is displayed as a sculpture in a modern art museum). The concept of useful articles helps to delineate between copyright law – which is intended to protect creative expression – and patent law – which is intended to protect inventions or “functional ideas.” Useful articles contain both creative expression and functional ideas, so these items have an ambiguous status under intellectual property law. Several courts have attempted to clarify this ambiguity, but useful articles doctrine remains a nebulous legal concept. This article will introduce some of the relevant case law in useful articles doctrine, and then discuss the applications of that law on one example of a useful object – a lawyer’s work product.

Copyright protection is the powerful and socially necessary guarantee of exclusive rights to the authors of creative works. An author receives a monopoly over his work the moment it is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression,”[1] and with some exceptions, nobody may copy or distribute that work without permission from the artist. The economic rationale for this legal protection seems obvious enough; few artists would commission works without the protection of copyright, out of fear that free-riders would exploit their efforts. However, if the protections granted to copyright owners are too strong, artists’ incentives to create are reduced. Imagine if a mystery writer penned a bestselling thriller and was therefore entitled to a copyright over the entire mystery genre. Fearing an infringement suit, nobody else would write a mystery, and there would be a chilling effect on future creativity. Copyright law must therefore strike a balance between affording protections to individual artists and preserving the ability of others to create their own works.

Image: Analogy of talking about copyright and the public domain, Source: Jonnymoon96Image: Analogy of talking about copyright and the public domain, Source: Jonnymoon96

Nowhere is this balancing act more nuanced than when dealing with useful articles. According to the federal copyright statute, a useful article is “[a thing] having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information.”[2] This intentionally vague definition encompasses nearly any ‘functional’ object one can imagine, from a belt buckle, as in Kieselstein-Cord v. Accessories By Pearl, Inc. 632 F.2d 989 (2d Cir. 1980)[3], to a lamp, as in Mazer v. Stein 347 U.S. 201 (1954).[4] The definition probably does not include something like a street map, because its sole purpose is to “convey information” about the layout of streets.

The crucial rule in useful articles doctrine is that copyright protection exists only for the elements of creative authorship “that can be identified separately from the utilitarian aspects of an object.” 17 U.S.C. § 101. The intent of this doctrine, known as “conceptual separability doctrine,” is to prevent someone from copyrighting something that is useful and commonplace. Just as a writer should not be allowed to copyright the entire mystery genre, the designer of a particular lamp should not have a copyright over every lamp design, and a jeweler who designs one belt buckle should not be able to copyright the very idea of a belt buckle. However, the definition of “useful articles” and the related doctrine of conceptual separability are highly ambiguous, so a large and growing body of case law has sprung up to help determine how to properly distinguish the copyrightable artistic elements of a work from its uncopyrightable utilitarian elements.

In a recent New York University Law Review article[5], Mala Chatterjee summarizes the divergent case law on the issue of separability:

Keiselstein-Cord v. Accessories by Pearl, Inc. held that the expressive aspect of the article is conceptually separable whenever it can be said to be “primary,” and the utilitarian function can be said to be “subsidiary”; Kieselstein-Cord v. Accessories by Pearl, Inc., 632 F.2d 989, 993 (2d Cir. 1980) Brandir International, Inc. v. Cascade Pacific Lumber Co. applied the test articulated by Robert Denicola in his paper Applied Art and Industrial Design: A Suggested Approach to Copyright in Useful Articles, See Brandir Int’l, Inc. v. Cascade Pac. Lumber Co., 834 F.2d 1142, 1146–47 (2d Cir. 1987) holding that copyrightability is dependent on “the extent to which the work reflects artistic expression uninhibited by functional considerations” Robert C. Denicola, Applied Art and Industrial Design: A Suggested Approach to Copyright in Useful Articles, 67 MINN. L. REV. 707, 741 (1983). and Judge Newman’s dissent in Carol Barnhart v. Economy Cover Corp. proposed a finding of copyrightability where a work “stimulate[s] in the mind of the beholder a concept that is separate from the concept evoked by its utilitarian function.” Carol Barnhart Inc. v. Econ. Cover Corp., 773 F.2d 411, 422 (2d Cir. 1985) (Newman, J., dissenting).

The most recent addition to the canon of conceptual separability doctrine is the 2017 Supreme Court decision in Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. 580 U.S. __ (2017).[6] This decision clarified the test of conceptual separability:

A feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article, and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated.

Separability doctrine reflects a fundamental precept of intellectual property law; that protection for the creators of utilitarian objects should be the domain of patent law and not of copyright. Patent protection, unlike copyright protection, does not automatically attach to a creative product the second it is created. In order to obtain a patent, an inventor must convince the patent office that his invention is a “new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.”[7] Because intellectual property law does not extend automatic protection to the functional elements of an otherwise creative work, a creator must meet a high threshold in order to monopolize the intellectual property rights in a functional object or process. This helps to preserve the ability of other creators to use functional ideas in their own works.

But what if a written work is the functional idea? Certain written works – legal documents, for example – are primarily intended to serve a particular utilitarian function (i.e. to convey title in a property). But they are also creative works; the lawyers who draft documents must creatively arrange the words on the page, just as fiction authors must be creative when they compose a novel. So the creative aspect and the utilitarian aspect of functional writing are in tension with one another when it comes to determining the protection status of the writing under copyright law. On one hand, the incentive rationale for copyright suggests that protection should apply to the lawyer’s creative expression; the lawyer would have less incentive to provide legal services if the fruits of his labor could simply be appropriated by anyone with physical access to his documents. On the other hand, to the extent that legal documents serve some utilitarian purpose - i.e. structuring a company or arguing to a court - should they not be considered “useful articles,” thereby making their functional elements ineligible for copyright protection? It should be noted that much of the conceptual separability doctrine discussed in this essay has dealt with “pictorial, graphic or sculptural work.”[8] Although this definition appears to preclude application to written expression, the doctrine of conceptual separability has, in fact, been applied to works which do not contain pictorial, graphic or sculptural elements.

Courts have sought to resolve the question of conceptual separability in written works with something called the “idea-expression divide.” The idea-expression divide was articulated with respect to copyright law in Baker v. Selden 101 U.S. 99 (1879).[9] This case involved an infringement suit over a book which described a new accounting system. Selden, the author, obtained a copyright for the book itself. Baker published and sold a book that described a very similar accounting system, and Selden sued for infringement. A unanimous Court held, “whilst no one has a right to print or publish [Selden’s] book, or any material part thereof, as a book intended to convey instruction in the art, any person may practice and use the art itself which he has described and illustrated therein.”[10] In other words, copyright protection extends only to the unique, expressive aspects of a work that describes a practical system - not to the system itself. Applied to the work product of lawyers, the holding of Baker suggests that legal documents are only entitled only to thin copyright protections, since they are more practical than expressive.

The copyright status of written work product has obvious economic implications for businesses like law firms, which derive their revenue from the sale of written works to clients.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


 [1]17 U.S.C. § 102

 [2]17 U.S.C. § 101

 [3]Kieselstein-Cord v. Accessories By Pearl, Inc. 632 F.2d 989 (2d Cir. 1980)

 [4]Mazer v. Stein 347 U.S. 201 (1954)

 [5]Chatterjee, M. (2018). Conceptual Separability as Conceivability: A Philosophical Analysis of the Useful Articles Doctrine. New York University Law Review,93(3), 558-588. Retrieved July 29, 2018.

 [6]Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. 580 U.S. __ (2017)

 [7]35 U.S.C. § 101

 [8]Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. 580 U.S. __ (2017)

 [9]Baker v. Selden 101 U.S. 99 (1879)

 [10]Id. at 104


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