Kieselstein-Cord v. Accessories by Pearl, Inc.
632 F.2d 989 (2d Cir. 1980)

  • Kieselstein-Cord was a jewelry designer who designed two very distinctive silver belt buckles. He registered the belt buckles with the Copyright Office as 'jewelry.'
    • Kieselstein-Cord won some design awards for the belt buckles and they were even placed on display in a museum.
  • Pearl started producing identical belt buckles. Kieselstein-Cord sued for copyright infringement.
    • Pearl argued that Kieselstein-Cord's copyright was invalid because they weren't works of art, they were belt buckles, and that utilitarian items (aka useful articles) are not copyrightable.
  • The Trial Court found for Pearl, Kieselstein-Cord appealed.
    • The Trial Court looked to 17 U.S.C. 101 and found that works with utilitarian features (like holding up your pants), 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 article."
    • The Court found that there was no separability of the artistic and utilitarian aspects of the belt buckle, so it could not be copyrighted.
      • A t-shirt with a cartoon on it is easily separable because you can easily see how the cartoon could be separated from the t-shirt itself. But in this case, it was harder to see how the copyrightable design elements were separable from the functional features of the belt buckle.
  • The Appellate Court reversed.
    • The Court looked at the belt buckle and found that it did contain artistic qualities. The Court found that you could make a belt buckle without some of the distinct features that Kieselstein-Cord's belt buckle had. Therefore, there was separability.
      • The Court noted that separability could be either physical or conceptual.
  • Basically, this case said that if you can identify some features to a utilitarian item (such as say, a pattern stamped into a belt buckle) that have no utilitarian purpose, then those features can be copyrighted, even if the overall function of the work is to be a utilitarian item.