Wednesday 21 August 2013

Exploring "Orderly Form" Requirements for U.S. Copyright Registrations

Again underscoring the importance of not just obtaining copyright registrations, but doing so correctly, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently explored the "orderly form" requirement for copyright registrations covering collections of works.

The plaintiff, sculptor Quincy Neri, sued the defendants for copyright infringement after they posted photographs online that included her sculpture.  The parties engaged in a joint project remodeling a home by installing a vaulted ceiling and Neri's glass sculpture.  The architecture company, a named defendant in the case, took photographs documenting the progress of the space, and two of these photos included Neri's sculpture.  The photos were shared online by the company as well as the home owner.  Based on these facts, Neri then sued the architectural company, the home owner, and others for copyright infringement.

Under U.S. copyright law, a copyright arises when an original work of authorship becomes fixed in a tangible medium, however litigation to enforce a copyright requires that the plaintiff have obtained a copyright registration.  In this case, Neri asserted that she had a copyright registration for the sculpture at issue, but the registration covered multiple works in a collection.  The district court found the copyright invalid on this basis and dismissed the case.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit held otherwise.

To obtain her copyright registration, Neri submitted a booklet of works as well as a selection of numbered photographs to the U.S. Copyright Office claiming that the works were part of a single collection called "Artwork of Q."  Defendants attacked the validity of the copyright registration and alternatively alleged that the registration did not in fact cover the sculpture that appeared in the remodel photographs.  Relying upon the administrative rules governing copyright registration of a collection, the Seventh Circuit held that the case been wrongly dismissed since the lower court judge had not actually evaluated the materials submitted to the copyright office, and instead had only reviewed deposition testimony of their nature.  Neither party had placed the deposit materials for the copyright registration on the record.  Neri thus benefited from the registration's entitlement to the presumption of validity.  The court, left grappling with the "orderly form" requirement for materials submitted for copyright registration of a collection concluded, "the key question must be whether the submission is organized well enough to permit users and courts to pin down the 'information' on which copyright enforcement depends."  And further, "Any organization that enables a court to associate a work underlying the suit with a work covered by a registration ought to do the trick."  

Ultimately, the case was remanded with instructions for the district court to reconsider its conclusions on the validity of the copyright registration and further to consider other previously overlooked issues such as joint authorship of the sculpture because the home owner and architectural company may have made creative contributions in determining the color and arrangement of the sixty glass pieces that comprised the finished sculpture.  The court further opined that sharing the pictures online may constitute fair use.

The court's full opinion may be accessed here.

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