Esther E. Lin | McDermott Will & Emery | May 28, 2015
Addressing the copyrightability of a laminate flooring design depicting maple planks, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that the design was copyright eligible and reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the alleged infringer. Home Legend, LLC v. Mannington Mills, Inc., Case No. 14-13440 (11th Cir., Apr. 29, 2015) (Carnes, J.)
Mannington Mills and Home Legend are competitors in the laminate flooring market. Mannington created the design at issue by envisioning what a wood floor might look like after decades of age and wear. The design process began with building prototype planks. Surface imperfections were made to dozens of raw planks; layers of stain were applied in different amounts to reflect greater wear in the center of each board; and streaks and other effects were added. Mannington chose 30 prototype planks to photograph, then made digital edits and selected 15 photographs to arrange into a single 120-by-100-inch photograph. This photograph became the “Glazed Maple” design, which was registered with the Copyright Office in 2010. The dispute arose when Home Legend began selling laminate flooring with designs “virtually identical in every respect” to the Glazed Maple design. After discovery closed, the district court granted Home Legend’s motion for summary judgment that the design was not copyrightable on three alternative grounds, but the 11th Circuit rejected all three.
First, the Court disagreed with the district court’s finding that the design merely “depict[ed] or cop[ied] elements found in nature—the look of a rustic, aged wooden floor” and thus was not sufficiently original for copyright protection. The Court found Mannington’s design was “the product of creativity, not a slavish copy of nature” and met Feist’s low bar for creativity, requiring only “some creative spark, no matter how crude, humble or obvious.” The design was also copyrightable as a compilation involving the artistic selection and arrangement of individual plank images.
The 11th Circuit also disagreed with the district court’s finding that the design was inseparable from the laminate flooring product, a “useful article” under 17 U.S.C. § 101, and therefore not copyrightable. The 11th Circuit rejected this finding not only because it was based on conjecture, but also because it was factually incorrect; the design was both physically and conceptually separable from the utilitarian aspects of the flooring. The Glazed Maple design was printed on décor paper that was applied to the flooring (demonstrating physical separability), and the design could very well be printed, framed and hung as art (demonstrating conceptual separability).
Finally, the Court rejected the district court’s finding that Mannington’s copyright was directed to an idea or process, as the copyright clearly protected the two-dimensional design.
The 11th Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court, but noted that Mannington’s copyright in the Glazed Maple design was not particularly strong and protected only the original elements. However, the copyright would protect Mannington from identical or near-identical copies of the design, including Home Legend’s allegedly infringing product.