Copyright FAQ: What Is a “Useful Article?”

Last week, I discussed a copyright infringement case involving Batman’s famous ride, 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 mentioned issue briefly, 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, furniture, household appliances, 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.”

Finally, it is important to note that copyright in a work that portrays a useful article extends only 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.

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