This past Wednesday, April 29, the Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded an underlying grant of summary judgment by the Northern District of Georgia that invalidated a copyright in a laminate wood flooring design.  In Home Legend, LLC v. Mannington Mills, Inc., defendant and counterclaimant Mannington Mills, Inc. asserted claims of copyright infringement over its “Glazed Maple” laminate flooring, which is designed, as one might expect, to resemble planks of maple wood.  Home Legend, LLC moved for summary judgment, arguing that the asserted copyright is devoid of copyrightable subject matter in light of the fact that the flooring resembles wood as it appears in nature, and that Mannington’s copyright impermissibly attempts to protect a process or idea, for a useful article.  The district court agreed, holding that “Mannington simply attempted to recreate the look of natural, rustic wood in another medium--artwork. Under those circumstances, the Court concludes that Mannington’s 2-D artwork lacks the originality required for copyright protection.”  The district court further held that the copyright was invalid as a useful article, and because Mannington attempted to protect an idea or a process with its copyright (ideas are not protectable under the Copyright Act; only their original expression will qualify for copyright protection).

Reviewing de novo, the Eleventh Circuit disagreed.  First, the Court, relying on the fundamental tenet that the requisite level of creativity to obtain copyright protection over a work is “extremely low,” held that Mannington’s “expression in the Glazed Maple design was the product of creativity, not a slavish copy of nature.  Perhaps that expression is not highly creative, but it does not need to be.  The decisions Mannington made in the location and character of the marks it added to the boards render its contributions creative enough to hurdle the low bar of copyright originality.”  The Court likewise ruled that the district court had erred in holding that the Glazed Maple design was a useful article, pointing out that Home Legend’s replication of the design shows that the design, as separated from the flooring product, holds value and has non-functional aesthetic purpose.  The Court also clarified that the copyright in the design was not for the process of making it, but for the resulting two-dimensional artwork.    

This recent ruling is yet another example of the difficulties faced by defendants to copyright infringement suits who attempt to invalidate a plaintiff’s rights on the basis of a lack of requisite originality.  These challenges often occur in cases where the asserted copyright contains elements from nature (for example, the myriad cases out of the Central District of California over floral fabric prints brought by Los Angeles textile mills).  Home Legend was correct that items in nature cannot be protected by copyright, but it was barking up the wrong tree in arguing that Mannington’s recreation of a natural object did not contain the extremely low creativity threshold for copyright protection. 

The corollary to this protection, however, is that a work which bears a likeness to a natural article affords a relatively weak copyright, and, thus, copyright holders in such works must often show that the infringing work is nearly identical.  In addition, the doctrine of scenes a faire holds that elements that flow naturally from the work’s theme -- rather than from the author’s creativity -- are unprotectable.  The Eleventh Circuit noted Mannington’s evidence that Home Legend’s flooring was “virtually identical” to its Glazed Maple design.  Given the relatively weak copyright in such works, this case may have gone in another direction if the evidence showed that any similarities between the two works were due to both parties’ attempts to recreate maple wood as it appears in nature, along with the scene a faire elements common to laminate wood flooring.

Home Legend, LLC v. Mannington Mills, Inc., Case 14-13440, Eleventh Circuit, April 29, 2015 (http://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201413440.pdf)