The past few months have seen a number of interesting trials and developments in copyright law. We are providing a two-part Copyright Roundup to summarize those cases you may have missed and to let you know why they are important. In part I, we discuss embarrassing photos, cheerleading uniforms, and monkey selfies.
Blogger’s use of “aesthetically displeasing” photograph of Miami Heat investor still a fair use.
We first covered the facts in the Katz v. Chevaldina case in our blog post, “Copyright as an Instrument for Censorship?”, noting that Mr. Katz had filed an appeal of the district court’s finding that defendant Irina Chevaldina was entitled to summary judgement based on a fair use defense. On September 17, 2015, the 11th Circuit released their opinion, affirming the lower court’s decision. Analyzing the purpose and character of use, the court found every use of the Mr. Katz photo to be primarily educational, rather than commercial (educating others about the nefariousness of Mr. Katz) and use of the photo to be transformative (Chevaldina used the photo to ridicule and satirize Mr. Katz’s character). When considering the nature of the copyrighted work, the court found the previously published photo to be primarily a factual work (the photo was a candid shot and the court found no evidence to establish that the photographer attempted to “convey ideas, emotions, or influence Katz’s expression or pose”. Finally, the use of the photo would not materially impair Katz’s incentive to publish the work—because Katz obtained ownership to prevent publication, there was no market for the original work.
Why does it matter? Katz’s conduct in initiating this lawsuit raised some big questions about the role of copyright law in censoring speech. In this case, Katz’s attempt to use copyright law as a shield against unwanted criticism ended up helping to strengthen Chevaldina’s fair use defense. The court’s central question under the fourth fair use factor was whether Chevaldina’s use of the photo would cause substantial economic harm that would impair Katz’s incentive to publish the photo. By obtaining the copyright in the photo and initiating a lawsuit to prevent publication of the photo, however, Katz demonstrated his desire to stop any use of and access to the photograph. The court held that Chevaldina’s use of the photo did not impair Katz’s incentive to publish the photo because Katz had no incentive to publish the photo and the likelihood of Katz changing his mind was “incredibly remote.”
The court also had an interesting analysis of the factual nature of the photograph. For a thoughtful discussion of this point, read Kevin Smith’s post, “Photography, Fair Use and Free Speech.”
Copyright protection for cheerleading uniforms: Varsity Brands v. Star Athletica
Varsity Spirit Corporation and Varsity Spirit Fashions and Supplies, Inc. (Varsity) designs and manufactures cheerleading apparel and accessories, having received copyright registrations for many of their design sketches. These designs included different combinations and arrangements of stripes, zigzags, chevron, and color blocks. The question on appeal was whether these elements were needed to make a cheerleading uniform or whether the design elements could exist separately from the uniform.
On August 19, 2015, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision that Varsity’s designs were not physically or conceptually separable from the utilitarian function of the cheerleading uniform, holding that the graphic designs on Varsity’s cheerleading uniforms were separate and therefore copyrightable. The Court distinguished Varsity’s design from dress designs, which typically do not receive copyright protection.
Why does it matter? U.S. copyright does not protect useful articles. Useful articles are articles that have a utilitarian function beyond portraying the appearance of the article or conveying information. To the extent that a work includes a useful function, copyright will only protect those original elements of the work that can be independently separated from the useful function of the work.
Prior to this case, the Sixth Circuit (binding authority for Ohio’s federal district courts) had not adopted an approach for determining separability. After reviewing the approaches taken by other circuits, the Sixth Circuit decided to adopt a hybrid approach to determine if a particular design is a copyrightable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. To make this determination, the following questions must be asked:
- Is the design a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work?
- If yes, is it a design of a useful article?
- If the design is of a useful article, what are the utilitarian aspects of the useful article?
- Can the viewer of the design identify pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features separately from the utilitarian aspects of the useful article?
- Finally, can the pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features of the design of the useful article exist independently of the utilitarian aspects of the useful article?
In answering these questions, the court identified a utilitarian function of a cheerleading uniform to “cover the body, wick away moisture, and withstand the rigors of athletic movements.” The court found that the top and skirt of the uniform could still be identified as a cheerleading uniform even without stripes, chevrons, color blocks, or zigzags. Finally, the interchangeability of the designs indicates the graphic features can exist separately and independently from the utilitarian features of the uniform.
Can a monkey own a copyright?
The “Monkey Selfie” case has taken an additional twist with a new lawsuit brought on behalf of Naruto, the crested macaque. The monkey selfie case began in 2011 when photographer David Slater took a trip to Indonesia and left his camera unattended. A monkey (Naruto) used the camera to take a number of photos of himself grinning into the camera. One self-portrait was reproduced in publications around the world, eventually being added to Wikimedia Commons under the presumption that the work was in the public domain. This prompted Mr. Slater to issue several DMCA takedown notices.
In 2014, Mr. Slater published a book containing copies of the Monkey Selfies, continuing to assert himself as copyright owner of the photographs. Later that year, the Copyright Office revised the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, to clarify that the U.S. Copyright Office would not register works produced by animals, including, for example, “a photograph taken by a monkey.”
On September 21, 2015, PETA filed a copyright lawsuit on behalf of Naruto against Mr. Slater, alleging that Mr. Slater falsely claimed to be the author of the photographs and made unauthorized copies of the works for commercial purposes. The lawsuit seeks an order to permit PETA to administer and protect Naruto’s rights in the photographs, declaring Naruto the author and copyright owner of the works.
Why does it matter? U.S. copyright law does not specify human authorship, though the U.S. Copyright Office has provided guidance on the issue through the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices. This case raises a number of interesting questions around how we define, or should define, “author.” If non-human authors are recognized as eligible copyright owners, should lines be drawn? Should the law, for example, provide exclusive rights to machines? And if the author can’t communicate their preferences, should we allow someone to speak on their behalf?
We will continue our Copyright Roundup in part two, where we will look at some important fair use developments in the Google Books lawsuit and Stephanie Lenz’s “dancing baby” case against Universal Music and answer the question, “is Happy Birthday to You finally in the public domain?”
By Maria Scheid, Rights Management Specialist at the Copyright Resources Center, The Ohio State University Libraries
 Katz v. Chevaldina, No. 14-14525 (11th Cir. 2015).
 Varsity Brands, Inc. v. Star Athletica, LLC, No. 14-5237 (6th Cir. 2015).
 Wikimedia Commons refused to remove the photograph on the basis that Mr. Slater was not the author of the work. Without a human author, Wikimedia Commons argued, the work may not be protected by copyright.
 U.S. Copyright Office, Compendium of the U.S. Copyright Office Practices (3d ed. 2014) § 313.2.