A “useful article” is an object that has an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information. Examples are clothing; automobile bodies; furniture; machinery, including household appliances; dinnerware; and lighting fixtures. An article that is part of a useful article, such as an ornamental wheel cover on a vehicle, can itself be a useful article.
Copyright does not protect the mechanical or utilitarian aspects of such works of craftsmanship. Copyright may, however, protect any pictorial, graphic, or sculptural authorship that can be identified separately from the utilitarian aspects of an object. Thus a useful article can have both copyrightable and uncopyrightable features. For example, a carving on the back of a chair or a floral relief design on silver flatware can be protected by copyright, but the design of the chair or the flatware itself cannot, even though it may be aesthetically pleasing.
Some designs of useful articles may qualify for protection under federal patent law. For details, contact the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, P.O. Box 1450, Alexandria, VA 22313-1450. tel: (800) 786-9199 or (571) 272-1000. web: www.uspto.gov.
Copyright in a work that portrays a useful article extends only to the artistic expression of the author of the pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. It does not extend to the design of the article that is portrayed. For example, a drawing or photograph of an automobile or a dress design can be copyrighted, but that does not give the artist or photographer the exclusive right to make automobiles or dresses of the same design.
FL-103, Reviewed December 2011