When does inspiration turn into copyright infringement? TARDUCCI v. COATES

When does inspiration turn into copyright infringement? TARDUCCI v. COATES

A copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the creator of a new artistic expression.  In the United States an artist is granted a copyright when the artist fixes their work in a tangible medium.  This means when a painter paints a picture, a photographer takes a picture or a singer records a song they are granted a copyright to their work.  A copyright gives an artist the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, transmit, and make derivative works based on the original work. If someone other than the copyright owner attempts to exercise one of these exclusive rights that can be considered copyright infringement.

An important aspect of copyright law is that a copyright protects an artist’s expression of an idea and not the underlying idea.  The public policy behind this aspect of copyright law is that artists frequently draw inspiration from other artists, to grant a copyright owner the exclusive right to an idea embodied in a copyrighted work would have a chilling effect on creativity.  This means that an artist that paints a picture of a tree has a copyright on their painting, but other artists are free to create their own painting of a tree.

When a copyrighted work is reproduced it is trivial to prove copyright infringement, a plaintiff must show he or she owns a valid copyright, and that the defendant actually copied the work.  When two works are similar, but not identical, it is more difficult to prove copyright infringement.  In that case a plaintiff must show that the defendant had access to the copyrighted work and that the degree of similarity between the two works is so striking or substantial that the similarity could only have been caused by copying, and not, through coincidence, independent creation, or a prior common source.

TARDUCCI v. COATES, 2020-cv-00069 (D.C.RI 2020) is a case which turns on whether one work of art was merely inspired by another work, or it is a derivative work.  The plaintiff in this case is an artist whose work has appeared in galleries, exhibitions and published art collections.  The plaintiff has been an artist for decades and her works sell for significant prices.  In 2016, the plaintiff produced a coordinated collection of eight 48″ x 48″ themed paintings referred to as “Floor Details”. Each of the individual works in the “Floor Details” collection is the subject of a United States Copyright Registration.  Examples of the works are reproduced above on the left.

The defendant operates a gallery and store located in Newport, Rhode Island where she sells pieces of art and various household items.  The defendant sells both art that she has created as well as art produced by other artists.

In the summer of 2018, the plaintiff and defendant discussed the possibility of placing some of plainiff’s works in the defendant’s gallery.  The plaintiff entrusted the works to the defendant to show to potential buyers.  Shortly after that the defendant asked the plaintiff to take the works away because the plaintiff had allowed another art gallery to present the works to potential buyers.  The plaintiff retrieved the original works shortly after that.

Subsequently, the defendant offered two 48″ x 48″ paintings for sale, entitled “The Cost of Doing Business”, in the defendant’s gallery.   Examples of the works are reproduced above on the right.

The plaintiff filed a complaint in February 2020 alleging that the defendant’s works infringe on the plaintiff’s copyright.  In the complaint the plaintiff asserts that the defendant had access to the plaintiff’s work and that the defendant’s work is substantially similar.  The plaintiff also asserts that the title “The Cost of Doing Business” indicates that the defendant’s infringement was willful.

While it seems that the defendant’s work is similar to the plaintiff’s it will be up to a jury to determine whether the similarities rise to the level of “substantially similar”.

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