As we discussed in this blog, works of nature, animals or plants — such as monkey selfies and paintings by elephants – aren’t protected by copyright law.
In addition, “works produced by mechanical processes or random selection without any contribution by a human author” aren’t registerable with the US copyright office.
This restriction would prohibit a claim “based on driftwood that has been shaped and smoothed by the ocean.”
But what about a work that’s supposed to look like it was shaped by nature – but actually wasn’t?
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that a design for laminate flooring that was supposed to look like “stained and apparently time-worn” maple planks involved enough human creativity to merit copyright protection.
Mannington Mills and Home Legends are companies that sell laminate wood flooring. Most such flooring includes a layer intended to look like wood.
Mannington registered the copyright for its “Glazed Maple” design in 2010, then discovered in 2012 that Home Legend was selling a nearly identical design and sent its competitor a cease and desist notice.
The district court found that the design lacked sufficient originality to be an “original work of authorship” under copyright law.
The Court of Appeals disagreed. Mannington didn’t simply take photos of old wooden planks. Instead, the company’s designers created an idealized version:
[T]hey imagined what a deeply stained maple floor might look like after years of wear, and then they used stain, paint, hand tools, and digital photo retouching to express their concept first on wood and then as digital images.
As the Court of Appeals noted,
Ideas alone are not protectable… But if the expression of an idea is sufficiently creative, that expression is protectable.
The case is Home Legend, LLC v. Mannington Mills, Inc.
The takeaway here is that if someone wants to copyright a design based on nature, rather than simply making a photographic image of the natural object they should approximate or interpret it using artificial means.