L. Batlin & Son, Inc. v. Snyder
536 F.2d 486 (2d Cir. 1976)

  • A long time ago, a manufacturer produced some metal piggy banks that had the character of Uncle Sam on them. They were popular for a while, but the manufacturer eventually stopped production and the design fell in the public domain.
  • Years later, a toymaker named Snyder produced a plastic version of the Uncle Sam bank. It had slight design changes, and was made of plastic instead of metal, but it was very similar. Snyder registered a copyright of his design.
  • Batlin was a competitor. He produced metal Uncle Sam banks that were similar to both Snyder's version and the original version. Snyder told Batlin to stop violating his copyright, and Batlin sued to have Snyder's copyright declared invalid.
    • Batlin argued that Snyder couldn't copyright the design because it was too derivative of the public domain original.
    • Snyder argued that his bank was sufficiently different from the public domain original to be copyrightable, and that Batlin's version was sufficiently similar to his to be a copyright infringement.
  • The Trial Court found for Batlin. Snyder appealed.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed.
    • The Appellate Court found that a reproduction can be afforded limited copyright protection, namely a copyright on the distinctive features contributed by the reproducer.
    • However, the Court found that the reproduction must contain "an original contribution not present in the underlying work of art." (aka a distinguishable variation)
      • The Court found that the differences between Snyder's version and the public domain original too miniscule to give Snyder a copyright.
      • See 17 U.S.C. 103(b).
    • The Court noted that if a reproduction with only miniscule variations was afforded copyright protection, it would allow people to monopolize public domain works by simply copying them.