Practical Advice About Copyrights

Making The Law Work To Your Advantage

Businesses often try to "copyright" their product designs after an item is created, only to find that the design is too functional to be protected under copyright law. "Functional" designs refer to those designs that are so general that they are considered ideas under the law: one cannot copyright an idea, one can only copyright the expression of that idea.

Such an interpretation of the law would seem to greatly limit the copyright protection that a company designing a new product might seek. Yet, with proper guidance, a firm may "tweak" a design - that is imbue it with certain specific, useful, and easily identifiable attributes ("arbitrary" features) that are chosen from a slew of possibilities so it may be "copyrighted." Such arbitrary features on a new product design might include decorative patterns, decorative representations of animals or objects, graphics that augment a text and unique formats of written text (as arranged on a page or computer screen).

Once the public accepts a product with such arbitrary features (through the manufacturer's marketing and advertising programs), a competitor would be "hard pressed" to duplicate the product's success without copying its protectable features. If such features are copied, legal rights quickly can be established in court.

In today's marketplace, it is often virtually impossible to stop "knock-off" artists from copying a product's look unless steps are taken to build arbitrary features into the design!