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BOYDS COLLECTION, LTD. v. BEARINGTON COLLECTION

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania


April 15, 2005.

THE BOYDS COLLECTION, LTD., Plaintiff
v.
THE BEARINGTON COLLECTION, INC., Defendant.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHRISTOPHER CONNER, District Judge

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the court is a motion by defendant, The Bearington Collection, Inc. ("Bearington"), for partial reconsideration of a memorandum and order denying summary judgment in its favor on the copyright infringement claims of plaintiff, The Boyds Collection, Ltd. ("Boyds"). The court concluded that several of the copyrights at issue, for plush bears differing only with respect to their clothing, are potentially valid because such clothing does not necessarily constitute a "useful article."*fn1 Bearington argues that this holding improperly contravenes rulings of the United States Copyright Office, the federal agency responsible for administration of copyright law. The court previously rejected this argument, and will reject it again for similar reasons. Copyright law excludes from its protection "useful articles": "[p]ictorial, graphic, and sculptural works" that have an "intrinsic utilitarian function." See 17 U.S.C. §§ 101, 102(a)(5); MELVILLE B. NIMMER & DAVID NIMMER, NIMMER ON COPYRIGHT §§ 1.06[A], 2.08 (2004) (hereinafter NIMMER). These works serve purposes independent of expression and, whether standing alone or incorporated into a previously copyrighted design, cannot be validly registered as enforceable copyrights. See Feist Publ'ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., Inc., 499 U.S. 340, 345-56 (1991) (noting that the focus of copyright law is on artistic "creativity" as opposed to technological innovation"); Dam Things from Denmark v. Russ Berrie & Co., Inc., 290 F.3d 548, 563 (3d Cir. 2002) (discussing derivative works). The copyrighted designs at issue here are wholly derivative of previous bears registered by Boyds, except as to their clothing. Thus, whether this clothing is a "useful article" subject to copyright protection is potentially dispositive of the validity of the Boyds copyrights.

The court, when presented with this question in Bearington's motion for summary judgment,*fn2 answered in the negative. It distinguished clothing for people, which has "universally" been held to fall within the definition of "useful article," from clothing for toys and dolls: Clothing [for a person], regardless of differences in design, may be worn by an individual to cover and protect his or her body. . . . [In contrast, t]he clothing on a teddy bear obviously has no utilitarian function. It is not intended to cover embarrassing anatomical aspects or to protect the bear from exterior elements. Rather, it is intended and serves only to modify the appearance of the bear, to give the doll a different "look and feel" from others. Clothing on a bear replicates the form but not the function of clothing on a person. It does not constitute a "useful article" excluded from copyright protection.

 Boyds Collection, Ltd. v. Bearington Collection, Inc., No. 1:02-CV-2083, 2005 WL 639618, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 21, 2005) (footnotes omitted).*fn3

  The court recognized that the Copyright Office apparently follows a contrary interpretation, as indicated in two letters produced by Bearington, under which all clothing — whether for a person or a doll — is deemed to be a "useful article" per se. The court also recognized that this interpretation was entitled to deference, as that of the agency responsible for administering copyright law.*fn4 Nevertheless, the agency's position was rejected for several reasons. The two letters submitted by Bearington do not disclose the source or rationale of the Copyright Office's theory, but merely state its position on the issue.*fn5 They were authored by an agency examiner, not an official clearly vested with interpretative authority.*fn6 And, most problematic, the interpretation proposed in the letters "fatally conflicts with the plain meaning" of the statutory definition of "useful article," as applied in this case.*fn7 See id.

  Bearington disagrees. It argues that the rationale for the agency's interpretation was presented in prior administrative rulings, and "need not be reiterated in every objection letter from the [agency]." It complains that, contrary to the court's description, the letters were authored by a "supervisory" examiner in the "Visual Arts Section of the Copyright Office." It characterizes the letters, provided by the agency in response to Bearington's applications to register clothing designs, as "ruling[s] having the force of law" that bind this court. It asserts that clothing on plush bears serves "utilitarian functions" of protection and preservation and should be considered "useful articles" under copyright law. Finally, and with a rhetorical flourish, Bearington claims that the court's decisions "will . . . open up a Pandora's box where decisions on copyrightability of articles of clothing [for dolls and people] will depend on whether or not they are deemed to be sufficiently `useful' or have a sufficiently `intrinsic utilitarian function.'" (Doc. 154).

  None of these contentions are meritorious. Obviously an agency may rely on previously expressed rationales in responding to an applicant, without repeating the complete justification for the agency's position. But a justification for the policy, if it is to be accorded substantial judicial deference, should appear somewhere in the court record. See United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U.S. 218, 228-29 (2001) (citing Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 140 (1944)). The letters offered by Bearington do not satisfy this condition. They do not provide a rationale for agency's position, and the prior ruling to which they cite — and upon which Bearington seizes — concerns the copyrightability of costumes for people, not clothing for dolls. See Registrability of Costume Designs, 56 Fed. Reg. 56530 (Nov. 5, 1991). The ruling's conclusion, that costumes for people "fall within the literal definition of useful article" because they serve the "useful function . . . [of] clothing the body," see id. at 56534, does not suggest that clothing for dolls should be considered "useful articles." To the contrary, this rationale seemingly supports the holding that doll clothing, if employed solely for appearance differentiation, has no "utilitarian function" and falls outside of the statutory definition of "useful article."*fn8 Similarly unavailing is Bearington's contention that the letters were authored by a "supervisory" official with significant experience in the field. An authoring official's position within an agency is relevant only to the extent that it establishes that person's authority to speak on the agency's behalf. See Mead, 533 U.S. at 228-31; see also INS v. Aguirre-Aguirre, 526 U.S. 415, 423-425 (1999); NationsBank of N.C., N.A. v. Variable Annuity Life Ins. Co., 513 U.S. 251, 256-257 (1995). Other gradations within employment, including whether the individual is a supervisor or supervisee, are immaterial to the proper level of deference to be afforded to the proffered interpretation. See id. Despite the "supervisory" position of the author of the letters at issue, nothing in the record indicates that he was vested with rule- or policy-making responsibilities. His opinion is properly viewed as a reflection of standard agency practice, but not more.*fn9 See id.

  Bearington's next argument — that the letters have the "force of law" and preclude the infringement claims sub judice — is simply wrong. Federal law vests in the Copyright Office the authority to promulgate regulations "for the administration of the functions and duties made the responsibility of the [agency]" under governing statutes. See 17 U.S.C. § 702; see also Cablevision Sys. Dev. Co. v. Motion Picture Ass'n of Am., Inc., 836 F.2d 599, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1988); Bonneville Int'l Corp. v. Peters, 153 F. Supp. 2d 763, 771-75 (E.D. Pa. 2001). However, the letters at issue were not promulgated under this authority. They do not have the "force of law." See Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576, 587 (2000); see also Mead, 533 U.S. at 228-31; Southco, Inc. v. Kanebridge Corp., 390 F.3d 276, 286-87 (3d Cir. 2004). At most, the letters represent individual adjudications of the Copyright Office in response to Bearington's registration applications. See 17 U.S.C. § 410(b); see also Fed. Employees v. Dep't of Interior, 526 U.S. 86, 98-99 (1999), cited in Mead, 533 U.S. at 230 n. 12. They are not enforceable against Boyds, which obtained the copyrights at issue in separate agency proceedings, and they do not affect Boyds's statutory right to bring the infringement action sub judice.*fn10 See 17 U.S.C. §§ 411, 501-502. Beyond demonstrating standard agency practice, the letters do not bind the court in ruling on these claims. See Mead, 533 U.S. at 228-31; Christensen, 529 U.S. at 587; Southco, 390 F.3d at 286 & n. 5. Moreover, the interpretation followed by the Copyright Office, as applied in this case under a view of the record favorable to Boyds,*fn11 clearly conflicts with copyright law. The clothing for the Boyds bears does not serve to protect the bears from exterior elements. It does not serve to cover indecent aspects of the bears. It does not serve any purpose except appearance differentiation. It has no independent "utilitarian function" and is not a "useful article." The agency's contrary interpretation cannot trump the plain meaning of the governing statute. Mead, 533 U.S. at 227-29; Chevron, 467 U.S. at 842-44.

  That clothes for a doll could hypothetically have a utilitarian function, such as protection or preservation, does not alter this conclusion. Classification of a design as a "useful article" is not an all-or-nothing proposition; the issue must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. A scale model plane that serves as a child's toy is not a useful article, but a scale model plane that serves as a pilotless military drone likely is.*fn12 A "fabric design" is a useful article but a "dress design" is not.*fn13 An "animal nose mask" is not a useful article, but a "lady's hat" is.*fn14 And, although a swimsuit is generally considered a useful article, it may lose this status if its sole use is as a "work of art."*fn15 The line between useful article and creative art is gray and cannot often be drawn in distinct strokes. See 1 NIMMER § 2.08[H][3] & n. 288; see also Southco, 390 F.3d at 289-90 (Becker, J., concurring).*fn16

  Neither this nor the previous decision expresses an opinion on whether clothing for dolls could ever be considered "useful articles." Unlike an agency policy statement, the judgment of a court is limited to the facts of the case.*fn17 Nothing in these decisions restricts the Copyright Office's authority to apply existing rules governing the copyrightability of clothing for people or to promulgate new regulations on clothing for dolls. They merely recognize that, based on the summary judgment record presented by the parties, the clothing for the Boyds bears does not serve a "utilitarian function" and cannot be considered a "useful article."

  Most importantly, these decisions must be considered in their procedural context. The court's legal determination that clothing for dolls is potentially copyrightable does not foreclose further deliberation on the factual issue of whether the clothing for the Boyds bears actually serves a "utilitarian function."*fn18 That the court was unable to make this factual finding at this stage of the proceedings, viewing only the summary judgment record, does not suggest that a jury will be unable to do so, weighing all of the evidence offered at trial. See Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 231-32 (3d Cir. 2001). The denial of Bearington's motion for summary judgment does not affect its right to raise and argue before the jury the alleged invalidity of the copyrights. See 4 NIMMER § 13.01[A].

  For these reasons, it is clear that this court's decisions will not lead to the dire consequences — the opening of a "Pandora's box" of frivolous copyright applications — portended by Bearington. Other judicial opinions have cast doubt on the validity of various rules and policies of the Copyright Office, including the registrability of clothing,*fn19 without having a substantial adverse effect on agency administration. See, e.g., Bartok v. Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., 523 F.2d 941, 946-47 (2d Cir. 1975). There is likewise no basis to assume that the decisions in this case will induce a rash of sweeping assaults on agency practice. Those challenges that do arise may be resolved as necessary by the Copyright Office and by the courts. See 17 U.S.C. §§ 411, 702.

  A "useful article" is one with an "intrinsic utilitarian function." See 17 U.S.C. §§ 101, 102(a)(5). On the summary judgment record,*fn20 the clothing for the copyrighted bears does not serve any purpose other than appearance differentiation. It is not a useful article. The copyrights held by Boyds are potentially valid, and the infringement claims against Bearington may proceed.

  An appropriate order will issue.*fn21 ORDER

  AND NOW, this 15th day of April, 2005, upon consideration of defendant's motion for reconsideration (Doc. 153), and for the reasons stated in the accompanying memorandum, it is hereby ORDERED that:

1. The motion for reconsideration (Doc. 153) is DENIED.
2. Counsel for the parties shall meet and confer, prior to the final pretrial conference in this case, for the purpose of reaching agreement on the claims to be submitted to the jury in this case. See L.R. 16.3(b).


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