UnIntellectual Property (UnIP): Copyright for Religious Images on Candles

The United States District Court for the Central District of California granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss.  Plaintiff and Defendant “both sell devotional prayer candles bearing images of saints and other religious figures.”  Plaintiff alleged that Defendant had infringed its copyright for the religious artwork on its candles, namely a “religious icon within a “bullet” shape in the style of a stained glass window, surrounded by a patterned border of colorful, geometric shapes.”  Plaintiff also asserted trade dress infringement claims pertaining to the candles design and shape.

The Court breathed in and blew out any light of hope for Plaintiff’s lawsuit.  In fact, the Court held that Plaintiff’s claimed copyright for “the artwork of border with appearance of cathedral window-shaped stained glass” was not protectable.  It held that “[a]n idea alone, such as the idea of depicting a stained-glass cathedral window, is not copyrightable.”  In addition, the Court held that “[t]he placement of a border around an (admittedly unprotected) image of a religious figure is hardly an original or unique expression. Nor is the use of a “bullet,” arched, or conical shape in a depiction of a religious icon in any way novel or groundbreaking. As evinced by Plaintiff’s own use of the term “cathedral window shape,” the bullet-type design is a widespread and longstanding staple of devotional iconography, to which Mercado can lay no copyright claim.”  While the Court acknowledged that the border artwork design may be protectable, such protection was so thin that Plaintiff can not satisfy that Defendant’s border was substantially similar.

The Court also dismissed the trade secret claim, based upon preemption of the Copyright Act, but only because insufficient separate facts were plead pertaining to any trade dress.

This decision exemplifies how a Court first applies the intrinsic test to determine copyrightability.  Only if copyright protection exists (i.e. a protectable expression, not an idea) will a Court entertain the extrinsic test to determine substantial similarity (i.e. copyright infringement).  While the case was dismissed with leave to amend, it may be difficult for Plaintiff to amend in such a way as to salvage any copyright claim.  That said, it may be able to sufficiently plead a trade dress claim, assuming the candle design and shape is not functional and can be protected as distinctive.  For now, however, this is case goes up in smoke.

Mercado Latino, Inc. v. Indio Products, Inc., CV 13-01027 DDP RNBX, 2013 WL 2898224 (C.D. Cal. June 12, 2013).


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