If you follow instructions to make a device, is that copyright infringement? RJ CONTROL v. MULTIJECT

If you follow instructions to make a device, is that copyright infringement? RJ CONTROL v. MULTIJECT

Copyright is a legal protection granted to the creator of a new work of expression. Painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, authors are all creative occupations whose works can be protected by copyright. Copyright allows creators to prevent other people from copying their works.  The owner of the copyright has the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works, and to distribute copies of the works to the public. However, copyright protection does not extend to every element of the work.  There are two important exclusions to what copyright law will protect.

First, 17 U.S.C. 102(b) provides: “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

Second, 17 U.S.C. 113(b) provides the Copyright Act: “does not afford, to the owner of copyright in a work that portrays a useful article as such, any greater or lesser rights with respect to the making, distribution, or display of the useful article so portrayed than those afforded to such works under the law.”

These two exclusions are meant to distinguish copyright law from patent law.  The reason for this distinction is the relatively low requirements for a copyright to be granted.  Copyright law is intended to protect an artist’s expression of an idea, while patent law is intended to protect an invention that embodies an idea.  This can be a difficult concept to grasp therefore it is helpful to study court precedent to understand how the law is applied.

RJ CONTROL CONSULTANTS, INC., v. MULTIJECT, LLC, 20-1009 (6th Cir. 2020) is an example of a case where reproducing a device illustrated in copyrighted drawings was found to not infringe on the drawing’s copyright.

This case begins with two men trying to solve a problem.  Plaintiff creates industrial control systems. Defendant engineers and sells various industrial accessories related to plastic injection molding.  Plaintiff and Defendant entered into a business relationship to develop a control system for an injection molding machine.

After a third version of the device was completed, Defendant asked Plaintiff for technical drawings of the device as well as the control software in case something should happen to the Plaintiff.  The relationship between the two parties soured and Defendant asked another company to build the device using Plaintiff’s drawings and software.  Plaintiff filed suit for copyright infringement.  The district court granted summary judgement in favor of the Defendants.  Plaintiff then appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

With respect to the control software the Sixth Circuit found that summary judgement was inappropriate and remanded the case  for further proceedings.

However, with respect to the technical drawings of the device, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgement.  The Sixth Circuit agreed that the use of the drawing to manufacture a control system is not an act of copyright infringement. The copyright protection extends to the drawing itself, affording Plaintiffs the exclusive right to prepare derivative works, distribute copies, and display the copyright. 17 U.S.C. § 106. Such protection, however, does not extend to the use of those drawings to create the useful article described in those drawings, as patent law—with its stricter standards requiring novelty—governs such use protection.  Copyright in a pictorial representation of a useful article does not vest the owner of the picture with a derivative copyright in the useful article itself.

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