Can Containers be Copyrighted?

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There are some containers that have achieved trademark status. Among the most famous are the Coca-Cola bottle and the OPI nail lacquer bottle. Ownership of a trademark in container design requires a solid showing of secondary meaning, which generally takes considerable time, sales volume, and promotional efforts. Ownership of a copyright in a new creative work, on the other hand, is automatic. Copyright registration is usually quick and inexpensive.

So why not protect a container design through copyright? Because a container design that is functional is not copyrightable.

According to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in its recent decision of Inhale, Inc. v. Starbuzz Tobacco, Inc., a case about a copyright claim on a hookah water pipe, copyright protection is not available for functional features of a useful article like a bottle or a chair. As a “useful article,” the shape of a container (including a hookah pipe) is copyrightable “only if, and only to the extent that, [it] incorporates . . . sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the container.” 17 U.S.C. § 101.

Courts have said that the non-functional, sculptural features must be “conceptually” or “physically” separable from the container in order to be protected by copyright. “Physically separable” is an easy concept – a printed label or a fancy emblem that is applied to the container can usually be protected by copyright, because it can exist separately from the container. “Conceptually separate” is more esoteric. The Ninth Circuit held that “the shape of a container is not independent of the container’s utilitarian function – to hold the contents within its shape – because the shape accomplishes the function.” In other words, as long as the shape of the container merely holds the container’s contents, the shape is not subject to copyright.

The Ninth Circuit left unanswered whether a “ring shape” that is molded into the bottle but does not conform to the interior container might be copyrightable as “conceptually separate” from the functional container. In any event, the Court’s lesson seems to be that, for copyright protection for a container, the copyrighted feature should serve no purpose in holding the contents. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys regularly work with clients to most effectively secure and protect their valuable intellectual property, regardless of whether it’s a traditional trademark, artwork, a fragrance or a container.