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TFG Exclusive: Case Brief

It's been a while since we've done a case brief post, but we're closing out the week with one. We designed this series to help inform anyone, be it a fashion lawyer or even a fashion designer, on how our courts decide on cases involving fashion. In this post, we present our readers with the following:

Kieselstein-Cord v. Accessories by Pearl, Inc.; 632 F.2d 989

Facts: Barry Kieselstein-Cord is a famous designer and artist who started his namesake line, Kieselstein Cord in the late 1970s. Educated at the Parson School of Design, New York University and the American Craft Institute, the designer is two-time winner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America Award.

His line consists of jewelry, belts, watches, and eyewear. His signature is creating pieces that are considered art objects or miniature sculptures, even to the degree that his work has been accepted into the permanent collections of the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.


Kieselstein-Cord's designs have been worn by the likes of Tom Hanks, Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey, Lennox Lewis, Steven Spielberg, T.I., Jay-Z, Vladimir Putin, Eric Clapton, Brooke Shields, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Sir Elton John, Sharon Stone, Bruce Springsteen, Usher, Lenny Kravitz, Whoopi Goldberg, Diane von Furstenberg and Obama. His line is currently sold at Bergdorf Goodman.

Jay-Z in a Kieselstein-Cord Belt Buckle

In 1978, the designer created the Vaquero and Winchester buckles (shown below) as part of a collection inspired by the art nouveau school. The buckle was registered with the Copyright Office in 1980 as "jewelry" and listed as "original sculpture and design." The buckle had great success in the marketplace, selling over 4,000 in a period of four years. So popular, that the defendant decided to produce line-by-line copies of the belt buckle and market them for sale as "BK copy." Plaintiff sued the defendant for copyright and trademark infringement as well as unfair competition. Defendant filed for a motion for summary judgment, which was granted, only to be appealed by the plaintiff.

Issue: The issue here wasn't that the defendant's buckle was a knock-off. There was question as as to whether the defendant's buckles were copies. However, the legal issue was whether plaintiff's buckles were copyrightable since buckles are generally considered utilitarian objects. 

Rule: The general U.S. law is that "useful articles" are not copyrightable. They lack originality or creativity, which is essential to proving a valid copyright. That is why fashion has such a hard time finding copyright protection. In general, buckles are considered useful articles unless there is a feature that can be identified separately from and exist independently of the utilitarian aspect of the buckle itself. In other words, for a useful article to be considered copyrightable, it must have a feature that is special enough to exist independently from the utilitarian part of the object.

Holding:  The court found that the design of the Kieselstein-Cord buckle was such that it was conceptually separable from its utilitarian feature. The design rose to the level of creative art, satisfying the elements of originality and creativtiy that allow something to be copyrightable. The court didn't see this as just another plain-old belt buckle. It considered it akin to a mini-sculpture, as designated in the registration. Therefore, the court found that the plaintiff had a valid copyright and dismissed the motion for summart judgment.

Lesson for designers: Your designs are protected by law if they have jewelry or artistic/sculptural-like features that can exist independently from the useful aspect of the design.


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