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
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.