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Legal Memorandum: Copyright Registration of a Useful Article

Issue: Under federal intellectual property law, what is the basis for the registration of a useful article under copyright law?

Area of Law: Intellectual Property Law
Keywords: Registration of a useful article; Work of art; Copyright law
Jurisdiction: Federal
Cited Cases: 802 F.2d 989; 725 F.2d 1350
Cited Statutes: 17 U.S.C. § 410(a); 17 U.S.C. § 410(b)
Date: 10/01/2004

           The only possible basis for the registration of a useful article is the registration of that aspect of the article that can be viewed as separable and that is copyrightable as a “work of art.”  See Norris Indus., Inc. v. Int’l Tel. & Tel. Corp., 696 F.2d 918 (11th Cir. 1983).  Norris held that a wire-spoked wheel cover was not copyrightable because it was a useful article that did not contain any superfluous sculptured design that could be identified apart from the wheel cover itself.  Id. at 924.  The court stated:

Even if the arrangement of spokes could be identified separately, however, they are incapable of existing independently. As the Register and the district court observed, the pattern resulting from the placement of spokes is an inseparable component of the wheel cover. The spokes are attached to the rim and to the hub, and once the spokes are removed from their position the pattern ceases to exist.

Id. at 923.   

Also, functional components of useful articles, no matter how artistically designed, are generally denied copyright protection unless they are physically separable from the useful article.  Id. at 924.

Congress has instructed that material containing copyrightable subject matter shall be given  a certificate of registration.  17 U.S.C. § 410(a).  Congress has further instructed that if “the Register of Copyrights determines that, in accordance with the provisions of this title, the material deposited does not constitute copyrightable subject matter . . . , the Register shall refuse […]

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