Blehm v. Jacobs

Summarized by:

  • Court: Intellectual Property Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Copyright
  • Date Filed: 12-27-2012
  • Case #: 11-1479
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Matheson, Gorsuch, Briscoe
  • Full Text Opinion

When determining whether works are substantially similar, courts will analyse the protected expression of underlying concepts and themes – not the themes sought to be expressed.

(Opinion Matheson) Blehm is a commercial artist who, in the late 1980’s, developed cartoon characters named “Penmen.” Between 1989 and 1993, Blehm created and copyrighted six Penmen posters. “Penmen” are smiling stick figures that are engaged in positive and uplifting activities. Jacobs designed a cartoon character named “Jake” in 1994. “Jake” is a smiling stick figure, whom is depicted doing basic activities and accompanied by the message “life is good.” Blehm sued Jacobs for copyright infringement. Jacobs filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that: 1) “Jake” was independently produced; 2) Blehm had failed to show that Jacobs had access to the copyrighted works from which to copy them; and 3) that “Jake” and the Penmen images were not substantially similar. The trial court granted Jacobs’ motion, and Blehm appealed. The Court of Appeals noted that the copyright does not extend to every idea or concept embodied or expressed by a work, but only the “particularized expression” of an idea. In the case of “Penmen” and “Jake,” the use of rudimentary figures engaged in everyday activities was not protected expression. However, stylistic decisions about the shape, proportion, and color of the figures were protected expressions. Thus, although both “Penmen” and “Jake” shared similar themes and motifs, the Court of Appeals found that the protected stylistic elements of the Penmen copyrights were not substantially similar to those of “Jake”. The motion for summary judgment was AFFIRMED.

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