Enterprise Management Ltd. v. Warrick

The U. S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit of Appeal reversed an award of a summary judgment to a defendant who was accused of infringing a diagram illustrating organizational concepts, stating that the merger doctrine did not prevent copyright protection because the ideas embodied in the diagram could have been expressed in other original ways. Enterprise Management Ltd. v. Warrick, Case No. 12-1135 (10th Cir., May 21, 2013).

Organizational management expert Mary Lippitt licensed use of certain materials, including a diagram about reasons for failures to effect organizational change, to Enterprise Management Ltd. The work, and the changes to the work, were registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in 1987, 2000 and 2003, respectively.

A professor at the University of Colorado, Donald W. Warrick, who offered management consulting services, obtained a copy of Lippitt’s diagram from a student and then used the diagram both for teaching his classes and for providing management services.

Enterprise and Lippitt sued Warrick, alleging copyright infringement. Warrick argued that the plaintiffs could not prove that Lippitt held a valid copyright on the diagram because she could not produce the diagram copyrighted in 1987 to show its similarity to Warrick’s work. Warrick also argued that the plaintiffs’ diagram was not copyrightable and that his diagram did not infringe on any protected expression in plaintiffs’ diagram. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Warrick.

Copyright law protects the expression of ideas rather than the underlying ideas themselves. While “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works” are generally copyrightable, the protection does not “extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery,” 17 U.S.C. §102(a)(5)and (b). When a work expresses an idea in the only way it can be expressed, courts deny copyright protection to those expressions under the “merger doctrine” to avoid giving the author a monopoly over the underlying idea.

On Lippitt’s appeal, the 10th Circuit reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. As explained by the court, in this instance the merger doctrine did not preclude copyright protection because even though the plaintiffs’ diagram expressed certain ideas, Warrick could have expressed those ideas differently. Because there are many ways to express the ideas illustrated in Lippitt’s diagram, the expression did not “merge” with the underlying ideas.

The 10th Circuit also rejected Warrick’s argument that the elements of Lippitt’s diagram are not eligible for copyright protection and that the diagram lacks the minimal degree of creativity necessary to qualify for copyright protection. “Any copyrightable work can be sliced into elements unworthy of copyright protection.” Here, the court concluded that the arrangement and choice of expression in Lippitt’s diagram is copyrightable.

Lastly, the 10th Circuit rejected Warrick’s argument that the plaintiffs could not prove that Lippitt held a valid copyright on the diagram because she could not produce the version of the diagram first registered with the Copyright Office. The Court said that the plaintiffs need only produce proof of the registration itself.