Generally, the issue of copyright infringement presents issues of fact to be decided by a jury. However, when evidence that a design is so “substantially similar” to a copyrighted design, the trial court can find infringement as a matter of law and grant summary judgment to the copyright owner. The Ninth Circuit recently approved of a district court doing exactly that in the case: Unicolors, Inc. v. Urban Outfitters, Inc., decided April 3, 2017.
Unicolors is a Los Angeles based company that designs and sells fabrics in the apparel markets. It typically copyrights its fabric designs. In September 2008, Unicolors obtained the rights to a floral design that it printed onto bolts of fabric. A few months later, it registered the floral pattern with the Copyright Office and sold approximately 14,000 yards of fabric bearing that design over the next several years.
Urban Outfitters has over 500 stores worldwide and is a specialty retail company. In 2010, Urban Outfitters developed and began selling a dress that had a floral fabric design that as very similar to that of Unicolors’ copyrighted design. Unicolors sent a cease and desist letter to Urban Outfitters and later filed suit against it for copyright infringement.
Prior to trial, the district court granted summary judgment to Unicolors finding that Urban Outfitters’ floral dress infringed on Unicolors’ copyright for the floral design. The case went to trial on other issues and Unicolors was awarded $164,000 in damages, and an additional $366,000 in attorney’s fees and costs. Urban Outfitters appealed both the summary judgment and the jury verdict to the Ninth Circuit. (This article will focus only on the lower court’s granting of summary judgment.)
To prevail on its infringement claim, Unicolors had to show that: (1) it owned the copyright in an infringed-upon work; and (2) the defendant was guilty of copying protected elements of the work. With regard to the copying element, Unicolors was required to demonstrate either direct evidence of copying or, if no evidence existed, “that: (1) the defendant had access to the copyrighted work prior to the creation of defendant’s work; and (2) there was substantial similarity of the general ideas and expression between the copyrighted work and the defendant’s work.” To establish the element of access, a plaintiff generally must show a “chain of events … between the plaintiff’s work and defendant’s access to that work;” or that plaintiff’s work has been widely disseminated. In moving for summary judgment, Unicolors conceded that it could not show “a chain of events linking its design to Urban [Outfitters]” such as to establish the element of access. However, prior Ninth Circuit cases have recognized that “if there is no evidence of access, a `striking similarity’ between the works may allow and inference of copying.” To determine whether works are strikingly similar, the Ninth Circuit applies a two part analysis. This analysis includes an extrinsic test requiring a plaintiff “to show overlap of `concrete elements based on objective criteria’ and an intrinsic test which focuses on whether the ordinary reasonable person would find `the total concept and feel of the works’ to be substantially similar.” Although this issue is generally a question of fact for the jury, the Ninth Circuit has recognized that there will be rare cases “where works are so overwhelmingly identical that the possibility of independent creation is precluded.” That is what the district court did in the Unicolors case in granting summary judgment.
The Ninth Circuit recognized that the trial court found that there was not sufficient evidence to show that Unicolors’ floral pattern had been widely disseminated, given that the lower court had focused its inquiry on whether the designs were strikingly similar. In reaching its conclusion, the lower court found it significant that there was substantial similarity between the works including “the presentations of the petal groups, the overlays, shading and layout are all nearly identical.” In fact, it appeared to the trial court that the only difference between the two designs had to do with the color palette selected. In almost every other design element, the trial court found them to be nearly identical.
Urban Outfitters argued that it was error for the lower court to grant summary judgment and that application of the intrinsic test required that the issue be decided by a jury. However, the Ninth Circuit rejected this argument, finding it contrary to its prior case law that recognized that “in exceptional cases, works may be so identical that summary judgment in favor of a plaintiff is warranted.”
The Ninth Circuit noted that the lower court had “detailed the various subjective factors and elements that [were] common between the subject design and the accused dress.” The Ninth Circuit concluded that: “given the intricacy of the designs and the objective overlap between them, the district court properly concluded that the works are `so overwhelmingly identical that the possibility of independent creation is precluded’.”
Urban Outfitters sought to overturn the summary judgment by arguing another line of cases, L.A. Printex Industries, Inc. v. Aeropostale, Inc. and Funky Films, Inc. v. Time Warner Entm’t Co., L.P., where the courts had held that the issues of the similarities between the products at issue were questions of fact for the jury. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument because in neither of those cases were the works “virtually identical” as in the floral pattern as issue in the case before it.
The Ninth Circuit continued by recognizing that preventing a lower court from granting summary judgment in a case where the two designs were “so overwhelming identical” would dilute the summary judgment procedures in copyright infringement cases. Thus, for the summary judgment procedures to have any impact in copyright infringement cases, the court should be empowered to grant summary judgment where the “overwhelming similarities” between the designs leave no other inference but that copying has occurred.
The Unicolor decision provides a copyright owner another weapon in its arsenal for prevailing on copyright infringement claims. If a copyright owner who has filed suit cannot (or at least not without great difficulty) establish that the defendant had access to its copyrighted design, then presenting evidence to the court that the two designs are so overwhelmingly similar may allow the copyright owner to obtain summary judgment on the issue of infringement and avoid having to present that part of the case to the jury.