Can a “Useful Article” Be Copyrighted?

Earlier this week, I told you about DC Comics’ copyright infringement case involving the Batmobile. In that case, a U.S. federal judge ruled that the famous car was protected under the Copyright Act because it possessed non-functional artistic elements that could be separated from the utilitarian aspect of the automobile.

In its most basic terms, the judge’s decision came down to the definition of a “useful article.” Since I only briefly touched on the issue, I thought it was important to give a more detailed explanation of exactly what constitutes a useful article.

The useful article doctrine denies copyright protection for the merely utilitarian aspects of a design. Examples include clothing; automobile bodies; furniture; machinery, including household appliances; dinnerware; and lighting fixtures.

However, as highlighted by the Batmobile case, a useful article can have both copyrightable and uncopyrightable features. Specifically, a copyright may protect any pictorial, graphic, or sculptural authorship that can be identified separately from the utilitarian aspects of an object.

The U.S. Copyright Office provides the following example: A carving on the back of a chair or a floral relief design on silver flatware can be protected by copyright, but the design of the chair or the flatware itself cannot, even though it may be aesthetically pleasing.

Copyright in a work that portrays a useful article only extends to the artistic expression of the author of the pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. It does not extend to the design of the article that is portrayed. This means that while a dress design can be copyrighted, that does not give the artist the exclusive right to make dresses of the same design.

How I Can Help

There are many issues involved in filing, maintaining and enforcing copyrights.  I can advise, protect and defend your copyrights.  If you need help to with a copyright matter, or know someone that can use my help, please contact me for a free 30 minute consultation at or call TOLL FREE at 1-855-UR IDEAS (1-855-874-3327) and ask for Norman.

– Ex astris, scientia –

I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney.  As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities.  Connect with me on Google +


One thought on “Can a “Useful Article” Be Copyrighted?

  1. Pingback: Can a “Useful Article” Be Copyrighted? | Astronomy and Law | MetaRead360 Small Press presents

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