Definition[edit | edit source]

U.S. copyright law[edit | edit source]

A useful article is

an article having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information. An article that is normally a part of a useful article is considered a "useful article."[1]

Designs for useful articles, such as vehicular bodies, wearing apparel, household appliances, and the like are not protected by copyright. However,

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.[2]

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has explained that "[t]his limitation is in keeping with the notion that functional items are not eligible for the relatively long-term protections of copyright, as opposed to the more temporary rights provided by the Patent Act."[3] Because industrial designs are commonly integrated into a "useful article"[4] — such as automobiles, handheld electronic devices, or clothing — they are often not eligible for copyright.[5]

The line between uncopyrightable works of industrial design and copyrightable works of applied art is not always clear. A two-dimensional painting, drawing, or other graphic work is still identifiable when it is printed on or applied to useful articles such as textile fabrics, wallpaper, containers, and the like. On the other hand, although the shape of an industrial product may be aesthetically satisfying and valuable, the copyright law does not afford it protection.

The designs of some useful objects may be entitled to protection under design patent law administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 17 U.S.C. §101.
  2. Id.
  3. Chosun, Int’l, Inc. v. Chrisha Creations, Ltd., 413 F.3d 324, 328 (9th Cir. 2005) (full-text).
  4. Id.
  5. Brian T. Yeh, Copyright Protection for Fashion Design: A Legal Analysis of Legislative Proposals (CRS Report RS22685) (Jan. 16, 2009).
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