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Archived updates for Friday, January 07, 2005

Part Serial Numbers Not Subject to Copyright Protection

In Southco, Inc. v. Kanebridge Corp., (3d Cir., December 3, 2004), Southco alleged that Kanebridge Corp. violated its copyright by referring to the serial numbers that Southco assigned to certain parts that it manufactures. The court held that the numbers were not protected by copyright because they are purely functional and not original. According to the court,

In this case, the Southco product numbers are not "original" because each number is rigidly dictated by the rules of the Southco system. Because ideas may not be copyrighted, Southco does not assert any claim of copyright in its numbering system, but instead focuses on the part numbers themselves. The numbers, however, do not reflect any creativity.

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The Southco numbers convey information about a few objective characteristics of mundane products - for example, that a particular screw is one-eighth of an inch in length. A photographic portrait, by contrast, does not simply convey information about a few objective characteristics of the subject but may also convey more complex and indeterminate ideas. The Southco numbers are produced mechanically using a system with fixed rules. No photographic portrait is produced in a comparable way. While a portrait photographer may use conventional principles of photographic composition, those principles are not at all like the fixed rules of the Southco system. Accordingly, there is no real analogy between Southco's numbers and the Oscar Wilde photograph in Burrow-Giles.

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The Southco part numbers are also excluded from copyright protection because they are analogous to short phrases or the titles of works. No one has ever suggested that the Southco part numbers fall on the "idea" side of the line. The relevant question is not whether the numbers represent an idea, as opposed to the expression of the idea, but whether the numbers possess the requisite spark of creativity needed for copyright protection.

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