Southern District of New York Finds Plaintiff's Furniture Not Copyrightable

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Laura McQuade | Bloomberg Law Heptagon Creations, Ltd. v. Core Group Marketing LLC, No. 11-CV-01794, 2011 BL 323653 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 22, 2011)

  • Real estate agents virtually furnished a New York City apartment by projecting images of plaintiff's furniture on the walls.
  • The court concluded that plaintiff's furniture was not copyrightable, having no design elements that were either physically or conceptually separable from the functional aspects of the furniture.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed a complaint brought by a high-end furniture maker against defendants for the unauthorized display of its furniture during an episode of the reality program, "Selling New York." The court found that Heptagon Creations, Ltd. had not sufficiently alleged design elements of its furniture that were physically or conceptually separable from the furniture's functional aspects.

Heptagon's Furniture Appears on a Reality Television Show

Heptagon designs high-end furniture, including its ANDRE JOYAU line. Defendant Core Group Marketing LLC is a New York real-estate broker. Core hired Pleskow & Rael, an architecture firm, to provide interior design services to help market its real estate listings. Pleskow & Rael asked Heptagon to lend Core a collection of ANDRE JOYAU furniture in exchange for the publicity and exposure that would result when the furniture appeared on the Home and Garden Television ("HGTV") reality television show about Core and its real estate brokers, "Selling New York." While Heptagon initially agreed, it later decided not to participate when Core refused to insure the furniture. HGTV later aired an episode of "Selling New York" in which Core agents decided to "furnish" an apartment in order to increase its appeal by projecting images of the rooms fully furnished with Heptagon's ANDRE JOYAU furniture on the walls. Heptagon brought suit against defendants for copyright infringement, trade dress infringement, and unfair competition.

Heptagon Furniture Not Copyrightable

Federal copyright law protects "pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works," but only to the extent that their design incorporates features that can be identified separately from the work's utilitarian function. Heptagon, therefore, must have alleged facts demonstrating that the design elements of its furniture are physically or conceptually separable from the furniture's utilitarian elements.

— Physical Separability

"[W]hen a component of a useful article can actually be removed from the original item and separately sold, without adversely impacting the article's functionality, that physically separable design element may be copyrighted." Chosun Int'l. Inc. v. Chrisha Creations. Ltd., 413 F.3d 324, 327 (2d Cir. 2005). The court reviewed each of Heptagon's pieces of furniture and the elements Heptagon alleged were physically separable from the function of the furniture. In each instance, the court disagreed with Heptagon, finding that the elements identified were not physically separable from that piece of furniture's function. Heptagon, for example, identified the "arcuate sculptural form" from its "Cocoon Chair," claiming that it could be separated from the chair without affecting the chair's function. The court explained, however, that the chair's illustration "clearly" showed that the sculptural form "actually comprises and supports the Cocoon Chair's arm rests and actually supports the seating area of the chair as well," and, therefore, could not be separated from the chair's function. Heptagon at 7. Similarly, Heptagon pointed to the "crescent and circle" design of its "Form Table." However, the court explained that this design is "part of the wood making up the table" and so it could not be physically separated from the table itself without adversely affecting its function. Id. Having determined that none of the design elements identified by Heptagon were physically separable from the functional aspects of the furniture, the court concluded that Heptagon's complaint did not sufficiently allege that its works were copyrightable on the basis of physical separability.

— Conceptual Separability

Conceptual separability exists "where design elements can be identified as reflecting the designer's artistic judgment exercised independently of functional influences." Brandir International, Inc. v. Cascade Pacific Lumber Co., 834 F.2d 1142, 1144 (2d Cir. 1987). The court explained that "if design elements reflect a merger of aesthetic and functional considerations, the artistic aspects of a work cannot be said to be conceptually separable from the utilitarian elements." Id. The court concluded that the alleged design elements of the nine ANDRE JOYAU pieces of furniture were not purely aesthetic choices, but instead "inextricably linked" with the functional aspects of the furniture. Heptagon at 11. According to the court, "[i]t strains belief that the designer of a chair, stool, table or lamp would have selected the shape and materials for those pieces without considering their purposes of providing seating, support and illumination." Id. The court thus concluded that Heptagon's complaint did not sufficiently allege that the furniture was copyrightable on the basis of conceptual separability. Having dismissed Heptagon's copyright infringement claim, the court also dismissed Heptagon's claims for trade dress infringement and unfair competition, thus granting defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint in its entirety. DisclaimerThis document and any discussions set forth herein are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice, which has to be addressed to particular facts and circumstances involved in any given situation. Review or use of the document and any discussions does not create an attorney-client relationship with the author or publisher. To the extent that this document may contain suggested provisions, they will require modification to suit a particular transaction, jurisdiction or situation. Please consult with an attorney with the appropriate level of experience if you have any questions. Any tax information contained in the document or discussions is not intended to be used, and cannot be used, for purposes of avoiding penalties imposed under the United States Internal Revenue Code. Any opinions expressed are those of the author. The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. and its affiliated entities do not take responsibility for the content in this document or discussions and do not make any representation or warranty as to their completeness or accuracy.©2014 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All rights reserved. Bloomberg Law Reports ® is a registered trademark and service mark of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.

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