Brandir International, Inc. v. Cascade Pacific Lumber Co.
834 F.2d 1142 (2d Cir. 1987)
Brandir designed a sleek new
metal bike rack for people to lock their bikes to.
The racks were featured in
design magazines and won an award from the Industrial Designers Society.
Cascade began copying the bike
racks. Brandir sued for copyright infringement.
Cascade argued that Brandir
could not copyright the bike racks because they weren't works of art,
they were utilitarian, and utilitarian items (aka useful articles) are not copyrightable.
The Trial Court found for
Cascade. Brandir appealed.
The Appellate Court affirmed.
The Appellate Court looked
to 17 U.S.C. §101 and found that
works with utilitarian features are only copyrightable to thee extent
that the design features "can be identified separately from, and are
capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the
This separablity can be either physical or conceptual.
The Court interpreted §101 to mean that, "if design elements reflect
a merger of aesthetic and functional considerations, the artist aspects
of a work cannot be said to be conceptually separable from
the utilitarian elements. Conversely, where design elements can be
identified as reflecting the designer's artistic judgment exercised
independently of functional influences, conceptual separability exists."
Basically, the courts must
look at the features of a work and decide if the creator chose those
features for design reasons or aesthetic reasons.
That's a very subjective
The Court looked at the
features of the bike rack and found that the form of the bike rack was
significantly influenced by utilitarian concerns and not aesthetic
concerns. Therefore there was no conceptual separability.
Compare this case to Kieselstein-Cord
v. Accessories by Pearl, Inc. (632
F.2d 989 (2d Cir. 1980)), which came to a different conclusion about conceptual
Was Brandir penalized in
this case because his design was very minimalist?
The test the Court suggests
in this case penalizes designers who successfully merge form and
function, and favors designers who merely decorate their utilitarian
articles with independent representational art as an afterthought.
Should it make a difference
that Brandir testified that he original conceived of the object as just a
piece of abstract art, and only realized after he built it that it would
be useful for storing bikes?