The Top Copyright Cases of 2021

Thomas James Minnesota attorney | Copyright Small Claims Board
Scales of justice relating to top copyright cases as compiled by Minnesota attorney Thomas James

by Minnesota attorney Thomas James

I initially had set out to put together a “Top 10” list. Really, though, I think the list can be boiled down to three. Admittedly, this is only my personal opinion. Time will tell. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here is my list of the 3 Top Copyright Cases of 2021.

Google v. Oracle America

Google v. Oracle America, __ U.S. __, 141 S. Ct. 1183 (2021)

This United States Supreme Court decision is the culmination of many years of litigation between tech giants Google and Oracle.

At issue was Google’s copying of 11,500 lines of code of the Java SE API. Illustrating the murkiness of the “fair use” concept, the United States Supreme Court declared that this was fair use.

The case highlights the relatively weak protection that copyright offers for computer programs. The functional aspects of a computer program are better protected by patent than copyright.

It is dangerous to read too much into the decision, though. It does not mean that computer program copyrights are worthless To the contrary, the case was decided on the basis of fair use. Google’s copying of the code was infringement. “Fair use” simply means that a court came to the conclusion that a particular defendant should not be held liable for a particular kind or instance of infringement. Another court could come to a different conclusion in a different case involving different parties, a different kind of computer program, and a different kind of use of it.

Warhol v. Goldsmith

Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith, No. 19-2420 (2nd Cir. 2021).

This case is notable primarily because of the celebrities involved. Lynn Goldsmith took a photograph of Prince in her studio in 1981. Andy Warhol created a series of silkscreen prints and pencil illustrations based on it. Goldsmith sued for infringement of the copyright in the photograph. The district court found in favor of Warhol, citing the transformative use doctrine. The Court of Appeals reversed, asserting that the district court misapplied the four “fair use” factors.

Reversals of “fair use” findings on appeal are not uncommon. They illustrate the nebulous nature of the four-factor test that courts use to evaluate fair use claims.

Design Basics v. Signature Construction

Design Basics v. Signature Construction, No. 19-2716 (7th Cir. 2021).

Design Basics holds registered copyrights in thousands of floor plans for single-family homes. The company attempts to secure “prompt settlements” of infringement claims. The court ruled against the company on an infringement claim, finding that these designs consisted mainly of unprotectable stock elements, much of which were dictated by functional considerations and existing design considerations.

Architectural designs are protected by copyright, but the protection is thin. Only a “strikingly similar” work can give risk to an infringement claim. In other words, infringement of an architectural work requires a showing of extremely close copying.

Need help with a copyright registration or a copyright matter? Contact the Cokato Copyright Attorney Tom James.

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Author: Thomas James

Formally known as Thomas B. James or Thomas James, Tom James is an attorney at the Law Office of Tom James in Cokato, Minnesota. Copyright, trademark, business law, nonprofit organization, appeals and appellate practice. Admitted to practice in Minnesota, the Federal and 8th Circuit Courts of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court. Also a continuing education instructor.

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