American Airlines files lawsuit to copyright its trademark

American Airlines files lawsuit to copyright its trademark

There is frequently confusion between the different branches of intellectual property.  The three main branches of intellectual property are patents, copyrights, and trademarks.  Patents protect inventions.  Copyrights protect art.  Trademarks protect symbols used to brand products.

Confusion starts when something attempts to straddle the line between multiple branches of intellectual property law.  The two branches that are most frequently straddled are trademark and copyright.  A copyrighted image can be used as a trademark and a trademarked image can be protected by copyright law.  But is that always true?

A key point of copyright law is that it protects original expressions of creative works.  United States copyright law does not grant protection to ideas or facts, so you cannot copyright a color or a number.  But an artist that paints a canvas with a single color can gain copyright protection for their painting.  The artist’s copyright would not ban all other artist from using that color, but an unauthorized picture of the single color painting could be considered a reproduction and copyright infringement.  Copyright law in the United States leaves the exact definition of what is original expression open to interpretation.

The question then becomes, is a trademark always creative enough to be granted copyright protection?

AMERICAN AIRLINES v. TEMPLE, 18-cv-00843 (N.D. TX 2018) is a case that revolves around that question.  The defendant in this case is Karyn A. Temple, the Acting Register of Copyrights, whose office refused to register the copyright on the plaintiffs trademarked logo.  American Airlines is a large commercial airline company in the United States.  American Airlines first introduced its new logo, named the Flight Symbol, in 2013, as part of American Airlines’ major rebranding effort following its merger with US Airways.  American Airlines employed several design agencies to help create the logo.  To protect the integrity of the Flight Symbol, American Airlines sought to register its copyright in the Flight Symbol with the Copyright Office in 2016. Given the unique design of the Flight Symbol, American Airlines fully expected that the Copyright Office would accept its application and register the Flight Symbol without controversy. To American Airlines’ surprise, however, the Copyright Office refused. The Copyright Office then denied American Airlines’ two motions for reconsideration, quipping: “while the bar for creativity is low, it does exist and the Work cannot glide over even its low heights.”

American Airlines filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Texas, in October 2018, to compel the Copyright Office to register their trademark.  American Airlines alleges that the Copyright Office’s refusal to register the Flight Symbol was arbitrary, capricious and, as such, an abuse of discretion that violated American Airlines’ rights under the Copyright Act.

American Airlines cites United States Supreme Court precedent to make the case that its logo is creative enough to be registered.   The Supreme Court emphasized that the level of creativity required for copyright protection is extremely low, and even a slight amount of creativity will suffice. The vast majority of works make the grade quite easily, as they possess some creative spark, no matter how crude, humble or obvious it might be.  Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 345 (1991).

The Copyright Office might have been trying to set a precedent to prevent companies from straddling trademark and copyright law.  But it does not appear that copyright law supports this position.  The Copyright Office will be given an opportunity to defend their position, but it is likely American Airlines will win the case.

If you have questions or comments for the authors of this blog please email us at: