Generally, the Copyright Office will not register works by nature, animals or plants. However, are the designs of wood floors original enough to warrant copyright protection? One Circuit Court said yes, and found that found that a design for laminate flooring was sufficiently creative to merit copyright protection.
Mannington Mills, Inc. and Home Legend LLC are competitors both selling laminate wood flooring. Mannington created a floor design called “Glazed Maple” that depicted what a wood floor might look like after decades of age and wear and registered the design with the U.S. Copyright Office in 2010.
In 2012, Mannington discovered that Home Legend was selling flooring that was identical to the “Glazed Maple” design. After Mannington sent a cease and desist letter, Home Legend filed suit seeking a declaratory judgment that the copyright was invalid. Mannington counterclaimed for copyright infringement.
Originally, the District Court agreed with Home Legend and found that the “Glazed Maple” design lacked sufficient originality to be an “original work of authorship” under copyright law. It found that the design was merely “a design depicting or copying elements found in nature — the look of a rustic, aged wooden floor.”
However, the 11th Circuit disagreed. The Circuit Court found that the design was “the product of creativity, not a slavish copy of nature” and met the low bar for creativity, requiring only “some creative spark, no matter how crude, humble or obvious.” In particular, the Circuit court held that
they 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. Ideas alone are not protectable… But if the expression of an idea is sufficiently creative, that expression is protectable.
Home Legend, LLC v. Mannington Mills, Inc., Case No. 14-13440 (11th Cir., Apr. 29, 2015) (Carnes, J.)
Although the Circuit Court held that the copyright was valid, it noted that the copyright was not particularly strong and protected only the original elements. Accordingly, the copyright would only extend to identical or near-identical copies of the design.
In sum, this case demonstrates the fairly low bar for copyright protection. Creativity in fashioning a design, even if it appears natural, can be protectable under copyright law. With this low bar, and the fairly simple and inexpensive process of registering a copyright with the Copyright Office, designers and companies should consider copyright registration to protect their designs and prevent their competitors from creating similar designs.