Recently, Brian Frye posted a picture to Instagram of a piece of furniture with a 1959 copyright notice. I found this interesting but not entirely surprising, as Mazer v. Stein had come down a few years earlier and companies were presumably testing the boundaries of conceptual severability and design protection
I tried searching for the registration in the Catalog of Copyright Entries to no avail, but did find a tidbit in the Annual Report of the Register of Copyrights for 1969:
An action for declaratory judgment and
mandatory registration was filed on August 7,
1968, against the Register of Copyrights, in
the U.S. District Court for the District of
Columbia The suit, Thomasville Furniture
Industries, Inc. v. Kaminstein, Civil Action
No. 1959-68, concerned eight applications for
registration of claims to copyright in three-dimensional
designs applied to articles of furniture.
The Copyright Office had rejected the
claims on the grounds that the works revealed
nothing identifiable as “a work of art” within
the meaning of the copyright law. On September
26 the Department of Justice, on behalf
of the Register, filed an answer. On January 3,
1969, the case was brought to a close when the
plaintiff fled a stipulation dismissing the case
With knowledge of the case in hand, I was able to get the case file from the National Archives. It’s fairly short at 20 pages, and the interesting parts are the complaint and answer – and especially the copy of the letter denying the copyright registration. In short, the Copyright Office held that a design for furniture was not copyrightable. For this interested, I believe this is the Thomasville Allegro Desk that was among the eight Thomasville sought to register for copyright. After the answer was filed Thomasville voluntarily dismissed the case, so no adjudication was ever made by the court.
In recent years there’s been a drift away from this position, as this article from INTA exemplifies. The Star Athletica decision has been taken as further evidence of a shift to allowing copyright to protect design. I try to avoid saying which approach is correct here, but I do think the progression of the law is interesting.
One interesting wrinkle – the copyright notice Brian found says 1959, but the denied registration and appeal were in 1968 – is it possible that in 1959 they applied a copyright notice but hadn’t filed the registration application, and the furniture in this photo wasn’t strictly related to the 1968 action?