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Don’t Scuff the Copyright: Federal Court Extends Intellectual Property Protection to Flooring

When trying to come up with things that copyright law protects, most people think about works like art, music, or movies. However, it turns out that copyright law protects much more than that. A recent ruling by the 11th Circuit, the federal appeals court covering Florida, highlights the surprisingly broad reach of copyright law. The case, Home Legend v. Mannington Mills, relates to a copyright lawsuit over laminate flooring.

In the case, Mannington Mills registered a copyright in their “Glazed Maple” flooring. The copyright covered the decorative image that adorned the laminate flooring to make it look like real wood. Mannington sued its competitor, Home Legend, based on the fact that Home Legend was selling floors with a virtually identical design. The district court sided with Home Legend, holding that the image was not sufficiently original to merit copyright protection, and that the Glazed Maple copyright would have been a copyright on nature or on functional matter. The appellate court disagreed on both counts.

The Low Originality Threshold

One important piece of copyright law is that it only protects “original works.” This means that there must be some spark of creativity to merit copyright protection. However, courts have repeatedly held that the originality threshold is exceedingly low. Courts do not want to be in the business judging a work’s artistic value.

The district court held that the wood flooring design did not even meet this low level because it merely recreated the look of natural, aged wood. However, the appeals court focused on the fact that Mannington aged the wood itself, making artistic decisions about how to best alter and depict the wood that they would eventually use as the basis for the design photograph. Although this may be a minimal amount of creativity, the court held that it was sufficient to clear copyright law’s low bar.

The Idea of Thin Copyrights

An important piece of the decision is the idea that a copyright can vary in “thickness.” Some copyrights are on completely unique, highly original works of art that are easily recognizable and not likely to be created independently. Other copyrights, thin copyrights, provide considerably less protection because they deal with less unique subject matter. These are not formal distinctions that judges make, but rather simply an idea that runs through copyright law.

The flooring copyright in this case is likely a thin one. The district court was concerned that if Mannington won the case, they would be able to enforce their copyright against many different manufacturers of faux-wood flooring. However, the appeals court was clear that that was not the case. Mannington’s copyright does not apply to the general idea of faux-wood flooring. Instead, it is on Mannington’s specific pattern of faux-wood. The fact that Home Legend’s flooring pattern was virtually identical to Mannington’s was key to Mannington’s victory in the case.

Copyright law is constantly in flux, and creative applications of copyright law can often make a big difference in the outcome of a case. If you are involved in a copyright dispute and want to learn more about your options, contact a Florida copyright lawyer at Pike & Lustig, LLP today.

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