27 March, 2017

Gimme a C! - Cheerleader Outfit Designs Protected by Copyright, Says US Supreme Court

Having discussed the Varsity Brands case in the US Court of Appeals nearly 6 months ago, this writer was quite excited to hear the Supreme Court's decision in the same case. While cheerleader outfits and their designs touch on very few people's lives, the matter still will shed light on very seldom discussed aspects of copyright; something that many IP practitioners and academics will appreciate quite a bit. The Supreme Court handed down its decision only last week.

Without discussing the facts in too much detail, the case of Star Athletica LLC v Varsity Brands Inc. dealt with two companies that design and manufacture cheerleading outfits, which often incorporate fanciful designs and patterns to distinguish the cheerleaders from each other (and to bring in their respective schools' colors). Varsity had registered over 200 such designs, many incorporating "...combinations, positionings, and arrangements of elements that include chevrons, lines, curves, stripes, angles, diagonals, inverted [chevrons], coloring, and shapes". The designs at issue are registrations 299A, 299B, 074, 078, and 0815 (viewable at the Appendix to the judgment). Varsity took Star Athletica to court over copyright infringement, specifically relating to the designs above, with the matter ultimately ending in the Supreme Court.

The crux of the matter lies in whether the designs used by Varsity are protected by copyright under 17 USC 102(5) as pictorial, graphic of sculptural works, and whether they would be classed as a 'useful article' under the provision, meaning an article "…having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information", therefore not being protected by copyright. Useful articles would only be protected by copyright if they incorporate "...pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article". This would mean that the design used, and wished to be protected, needs to stand out on its own from the article its used on, otherwise it will be deemed as merely functional and won't be protected.

Justice Thomas, handing down the majority's opinion, then moved onto whether the designs actually can be identified separately from, and can exist independently, from the utilitarian aspects of the uniforms.

The Court set out the ordinary interpretation of the statute's text, in that for the design to be identified separately from the useful article, the decision-maker only needs to "...be able to look at the useful article and spot some two- or three-dimensional element that appears to have pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities". This is pretty much as simple as it gets, as the identification of a design in the article, so long as it doesn't blend into the article or isn't a part of its functionality, is most likely quite straightforward in many instances. The second part, the independent-existence of the design, is a determination of "...that the separately identified feature has the capacity to exist apart from the utilitarian aspects of the article". The design therefore has to retain its design value, i.e. remain a work capable of being protected under section 102(5); however, it still cannot be a useful article in itself even if separated from the original article it was applied to, nor will it give rise to rights in the useful article it was applied to even if it is protectable outside of that article.

In summary, "...a feature of the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright if, when identified and imagined apart from the useful article, it would qualify as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or when fixed in some other tangible medium". What remains curious is the subjectivity involved in the test, where the decision-maker has to only identify the design and imagine is outside of the useful article for it to potentially be protected.

Some don't need fancy patterns to distinguish themselves in cheerleading
In applying the test to the designs in question, Justice Thomas determined that the decorations were features that had pictorial, graphic or sculptural qualities. They also, if removed from the outfits themselves, were separate from the useful article, possibly being usable in another medium, for example on a canvas as a two-dimensional work of art. The removal of the designs would not replicate the uniforms, but merely the designs used in them, therefore not making them a useful article in themselves. While the designs do include the outline of the uniform, Justice Thomas rejected the argument that this would reproduce the useful article as whole, as the artistic value in the work still remains, even recreated with the outline of where it would be applied to. This would not, as discussed above, create rights in the useful article or its construction, but merely the design.

Star Athletica put forth a wealth of arguments to contradict the above determination. Among them Justice Thomas rejected the assertion that, for protection to be afforded for the design, both the design and the useful article have to exist as such when separated (i.e. as a protectable design and a useful article in themselves), where the extracted design would solely be an artistic feature, as the focus is on the design rather than the article it was taken from and the end-result after separation for it is irrelevant. Applied art would be protected if separated, even if it fulfilled some useful aspect in the article.

The Supreme Court therefore held that the designs in the cheerleader outfits are protected by copyright, and rejected the appeal.

While the majority issued its, arguably at least, straightforward decision, there was some dissent from Justice Breyer and Justice Kennedy. The Justices, in their joint dissent, argued that the design and the dress (as depicted in the registrations) were not separable, and would merely reproduce the dress in the new 'separated' design. Due to this lack of both physical and conceptual separation, the design would not be protected under copyright. The dissent's viewpoint clearly stems from the depiction of the designs, but this writer would argue that their perspective would entail a great deal of splitting hairs. While it is clear one has to treat the design as it is presented in the registration, it is still possible to apply common sense when looking at the design from a subjective point of view, which affords this ability to both identify and imagine the design separate from the outline of a dress (or the three-dimensional depiction of the same).

The case if a very interesting one, and has finally set a clear test for the consideration of useful articles and designs in the same. While the subjectivity of the test can, and most likely will, ruffle some feathers, it seems to be the simplest and most logical approach to assessing the designs, but does leave the outcomes of cases in the hands of the respective judges and their subjective viewpoints. In its simplicity lies some level of concern, as it will undoubtedly impact the "knock-off" business, but rightsholders would argue this is the right, and desired outcome.

22 March, 2017

A Gentleman's Code - The Copying of Software Code and Copyright

Computer programming, especially to the layman, can be both incredibly daunting and very confusing, as the languages, while logical, can be quite impenetrable. Since computers and computing have become near ubiquitous in modern society, so has programming become a part of our lives, even if not directly. Due to this, the value of code and programs can be substantial, especially for ones that are lucky enough to become standards, or just plain popular. Code and copyright rarely meet, but in the vein of the above, can code be construed as a copyright protected work, and if so, how much can you copy before you're infringing the rights attached to the code?

The case of IPC Global Pty Ltd v Pavetest Pty Ltd (No 3) dealt with equipment used to test asphalt and construction materials, built by IPC, which included custom programming to enable the user to test said materials and view results. This piece of software was installed on the users' computer. Two individuals, Con Sinadinos and Alan Feeley, worked at IPC (with the latter working as a consultant as a part of Alueta). The pair then resigned from IPC in 2012, establishing a competitor company, Pavetest, which launched competing testing products. Mr Feeley had in his possessions copies of IPC's programs on his computer that he took with him when leaving IPC. He then provided them for a programmer who made copies of the programs, leaving some parts of the Pavetest identical to that of IPC's programs. IPC then took Pavetest (and the individuals) for, among other claims, copyright infringement and breach of confidence.

Although Justice Moshinsky had a wide array of issues to decide, focus for the purposes of this article will remain on the question: "...did Pavetest infringe copyright in the UTS software by the creation of version 1 of the TestLab software? In particular, did version 1 of the TestLab software reproduce a substantial part of the UTS software?"

After discussing, at length, the companies and the development of the two competing pieces of software, the court focussed on the matter of copyright infringement.

Original code? Nah... (Source: xkcd)
The courts have struggled with defining what amounts to a 'substantial amount', as per section 14 of the Copyright Act 1968, which was discussed by the High Court of Australia in IceTV: "The case law does disclose that special difficulty has been encountered in considering the relationship between the phrase “a substantial part” in s 14(1) of the Act and the definition in s 10(1) of that species of “literary work” which is a “computer program”, being: “a set of statements or instructions to be used directly or indirectly in a computer in order to bring about a certain result.” (Emphasis added) The phrase emphasised suggests the importance of function, although this is usually encountered in patent and designs law, rather than in the “traditional” law of copyright respecting original literary works".

The courts have developed a test to determine whether a computer program has been infringed, there is ‘the need for some process of qualitative abstraction of the material features of the computer program in question’, and the copying of those features in the potentially infringing program (i.e. of a program calculates figures based on data, the program features of the calculation would be more important than the aesthetic function of the same under this context).

While the respondent conceded that the code is a copyright protected work, that substantial parts of the code were copied (but not to the degree of being a substantial part under section 14), and that this was done on behalf of Pavetest with the authorization of the individuals above, the court still had to consider whether the copying was indeed substantial under the law.

Due to the coder working for Pavetest to be able to rewrite the code so as the new version didn't infringe IPC's copyright, there clearly was a wide margin of expression in how the code could be implemented, while still having the same functionality. The writing of the code therefore included a degree of choice and judgment, making the expression of that functionality original under copyright. While some parts of the code would not be essential, Justice Moshinsky still upheld that they were original works equally to those parts that were essential. Finally, the amount of code, albeit a small amount (roughly 10,000 lines of code from about 250,000 lines), the copying was substantial, according to the judge, due to its necessity to achieve the desired functionality, rather than just simply through a quantitive measure. Pavetest had subsequently infringed the rights in the code.

The case is a very interesting one, and highlights a need for anyone copying others' code (which seems to be an industry standard, albeit only in parts of programming) to be cautious, and to rewrite anything that could be deemed to be a substantial copying. Software creation is incredibly complex and difficult, and one can appreciate the adoption of shortcuts, but the courts will clearly combat any abuses of others copyright works, even if it's just 'meaningless' code.

Source:  IP Whiteboard

07 March, 2017

All Wrapped Up - Canadian Federal Court Decides on the Sharing of Pay-walled Copyright Works

While the European landscape has changed and clarified itself to a great degree in relation to the use of copyright protected content online (see more for example here, here and here), the rest of the world, comparatively at least, has stayed relatively quiet. One issue in particular, meaning the accessing of pay-walled or otherwise restricted content through sharing of that content to others without access to is is legal or not, has trickled through more than others. Many would argue that, while not definitive, the EU is quite established itself on where it stands on this, but our cousins across the pond in Canada have yet to fully cement themselves in this question, as can be illustrated by this recent decision in the Federal Court of Ontario.

The case of Ontario Ltd (Blacklock's Reporter) v. Canada (Attorney General) dealt with an online news agency, Blacklock's Reporter, which specializes in news surrounding, predominantly, the Canadian government. The Department of Finance, a part of the Canadian government, distributed two articles from Blacklock' within the Department without seeking consent. The contents of the article are largely irrelevant to the case, but Blacklock's does keep all of its contents behind a paywall, with a DOF employee accessing the relevant articles through a single subscription, subsequently sharing them internally within the DOF. Blacklock's then took the DOF to court over copyright infringement.

The Federal Court had to assess whether the rights in those works had been infringed, and if that use then was protected by fair dealing.

The court did not dispute the copyright in the works under section 29 of the Canadian Copyright Act (nor did the parties), but did raise questions as to whether Blacklock's assertion of their rights could amount to an abuse of those rights. The question therefore focussed on the aspect of fair dealing.

Canadian fair dealing covers only a narrow set of exceptions in section 29, particularly for research, private study, education, parody or satire. The DOF argued that their use was for research purposes and didn't therefore infringe Blaclock's rights.

Section 29 was further expanded on in the milestone case of CCH (discussed more here), which set a two-part test on whether a use was protected by fair dealing: 1. Whether the dealing is for the purpose of “research” or “private study”, also known as an allowable purpose; and 2. Whether the dealing is “fair”. The latter, whether a particular use is fair, involved certain factors that the courts ought to consider:

"1. The purpose of the dealing, where an objective assessment is made of the “real purpose or motive” behind using the copyrighted work, such as for commercial purposes versus charitable purposes; 2. The character of the dealing, examining how the works were dealt with, such as whether multiple copies of works are being widely distributed, or whether a single copy of a work is used for a legitimate purpose; 3. The quantity or amount of the dealing, including the importance of the work allegedly infringed; 4. Alternatives to the dealing, such as whether there is a non-copyrighted equivalent of the work that could have been used instead; 5.  The nature of the work, such as whether the work has been published or is confidential; and 6. The effect of the dealing on the work, such as whether a reproduced work is likely to compete with the market of the original work."

While the above two categories relate more directly to the research exception put forth by, a more nuanced approach has been adopted for research in the SOCAN case, which were distilled by the court in the case at hand:

Research can be more 'challenging' than you'd expect
"Research does not need to be undertaken for the purpose of the user engaging in its own act of authorship or creativity; Research is not limited to creative purposes but can be “piecemeal, informal, exploratory, or confirmatory”, and can be undertaken for no purpose except personal interest; The first step in the fair dealing analysis is a relatively low threshold and does not require the creation of a new work; and The analysis should be undertaken from the perspective of the user or consumer’s purpose". Here the court gives a very wide definition of research, potentially including mere personal interests, even if not 'academic' research, which can include much of the information used to support the purpose. This writer is encouraged by this finding, since a more narrow, limiting definition would deter private researchers (such as this 'researcher') and the potential sharing of that knowledge with others.

The Court quickly, without giving the above much consideration, determined that the DOF's use was indeed fair dealing. This included the fact that, for example, the materials were acquired legally through a licence, the use was for legitimate business reasons internally in the DOF, no commercial advantage was sought and that it was limited to only 6 individuals. Even though the terms and conditions were breached as a result, the court rejected that this would prohibit or prevent fair dealing from applying in those instances. They, however, have to be brought to the attention of the subscriber, which Blacklock's had not done (albeit the terms did exist, but were never formally accepted by the individuals signing up). The defendant was therefore never aware of the terms, and of their own breach as a result.

Judge Barnes determined that fair dealing did apply in this case, and noted that "...Absent consent, subscribers and downstream users are subject to the obligations imposed on them by the Act. But at the same time they enjoy the considerable protection afforded to them under the statutory fair dealing provisions". He further highlighted that, as contested by Blacklock's, that subscriber services like this would suffer very little detriment to their business model, but it does not allow for a carte blanche for users to share the content, which is restricted to genuine fair dealing either way.

The case shows that, provided the uses are legitimate, fair dealing should be afforded a broad and inclusive definition, especially when it comes to research. One can agree with this, since a strict interpretation would act counter-intuitively to the sharing and dissemination of information. The decision also highlights a potential need for the UK to adopt a similar 'fair use' policy, which broadens and protects legitimate uses in a more effective way than restrictive categories.

Source: Barry Sookman