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The topic of copyright protection for labels is a vague and confusing area.  People loosely talk about “patenting a trade-mark” or “copyrighting a name”.  This shows the confusion in the minds of the people and the lack of understanding that people have about the various legal principles and their different practical application.  

Originally, labels and commercial prints could not be registered as copyrights with the Library of Congress, but rather were registered with the Patent Office. At the time the Print and Label Act was passed in 1874, it was not clear that labels and commercial prints could be copyrighted under the Constitution, and the statute not only never specified whether prints and labels were being registered as patents, copyrights, trademarks, or some other form of intellectual property, but it gave some indication that prints and labels could not be copyrighted.  As it seemingly fit under neither the trademark nor copyright systems, this act survived well beyond both the trademark and copyright laws enacted in 1870, until it was repealed in 1939.

Today, copyright is defined as the exclusive legal rights that protect works of authorship, composition or artistry.  A copyright protects the publication, production or sale of the rights to a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work or computer program or to the use of a commercial print or label.  Therefore, copyright protects original art in labels from unlawful duplication, replication, or distribution.

In the case of Ets-Hokin v. Skyy Spirits, Inc., the US Court of Appeals had to decide whether straight-on photographs of a Skyy Vodka bottle, similar to the one pictured, were derivative works such that the photographer had infringed any copyright in the bottle and/or label.  The court in this case held that:

1. The bottle itself was a “useful article” with an “intrinsic utilitarian function”, and hence could not attract copyright protection.  The Court said “The Skyy vodka bottle, although attractive, has no special design or other features that could exist independently as a work of art. It is essentially a functional bottle without a distinctive shape”.

2. As to the label, copyright cannot be claimed in a “print or label consisting solely of trademark subject matter and lacking copyrightable matter. Although a label’s “graphical illustrations” are normally copyrightable, “textual matter” is not — at least not unless the text aids or augments an accompanying graphical illustration. The label on Skyy’s vodka bottle consists only of text and does not include any pictorial illustrations”.

3. There was no need to decide whether the label was copyrightable as the photographs were “based on the bottle as a whole, not on the label. The whole point of the shots was to capture the bottle in its entirety”. Since the shots were of “the bottle as a whole — a useful article not subject to copyright protection — and not a shot merely, or even mainly, of its label”, the Court held that the photographs were not derivative works.

The decision in this case reveals that although copyright does not exist on the text of the label, a graphic design on a label may be eligible for copyright protection under law.

Inside Labels