I was recently asked about how to protect ornamental and artistic designs with respect to furniture. My first reaction was to say “design patents”! But then I thought about it and realized using copyright in addition to design patents would be useful in protecting the furniture design.
The case of Huebbe v. Oklahoma Casting Co. et al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91824 (W.D. Okla. Sept. 30, 2009) was about animal designs such as stags placed on furniture such as chandeliers. The defendants argued that the plaintiffs could not win on copyright claims regarding the chandeliers because: “chandeliers are “useful articles” under the Act, and copyright protection extends only to those portions of the designs that can be “identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” 17 U. S. C. § 101.“ However, the court disagreed and said: “Plaintiff’s chandeliers are not excluded from copyright protection because they are useful articles; rather, Plaintiff’s artistic expressions are conceptually separable from the utilitarian function of these items.”
Therefore, if your furniture designs have artistic expressions that are conceptually separable from the utilitarian function of the furniture, then copyright protection is available.
Of course design patents were created expressly to protect items like furniture when they have unique ornamental designs. The Patent Office defines “design” with respect to design patents as follows:
“A design consists of the visual ornamental characteristics embodied in, or applied to, an article of manufacture. Since a design is manifested in appearance, the subject matter of a design patent application may relate to the configuration or shape of an article, to the surface ornamentation applied to an article, or to the combination of configuration and surface ornamentation.”
Thus, please consider both Copyright and Design Patents when thinking on how to protect your furniture designs.