9th Circuit: Direct Tech v EA – Copyrightability of 3D Derivative Work of 2D Image

plumbbob usb flash drive

Justia summary: EA, creator of The Sims, contracted with a production company called Lithomania to produce a USB flash drive shaped like a “PlumbBob,” a gem-shaped icon from the computer game, to promote a “Collector’s Edition” of The Sims. Lithomania in turn contracted with DT to produce a prototype of the PlumbBob-shaped flash drive. After DT settled breach of contract claims with Lithomania, DT sued EA under the federal Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 101 et seq., and the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act (CUTSA), Cal. Civ. Code 3426–3246.11. The district court granted summary judgment to EA. The court held that the district court erred by concluding as a matter of law that the flash drive was not copyrightable, and that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether DT’s cut-away design for removing the USB flash drive from the PlumbBob object is sufficiently non-functional and non-trivial to warrant copyright protection. In this case, a reasonable jury could decide these questions in either party’s favor. Therefore, the court reversed as to this claim. The court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to EA as to the CUTSA claim and held that DT’s design for the flash drive’s removal from the PlumbBob object does not derive independent economic value from not being generally known to the public. The court rejected EA’s cross appeal and held that the district court did not clearly err or otherwise abuse its discretion in denying attorneys’ fees for this claim.

I was initially interested in this case because of the discussion as to what extent 3D models based on 2D images contain copyrightable expression (see discussion beginning on page 10).

However there is another interesting angle here: the fact pattern where a disgruntled contractor wishes to assert rights in a derivative work against the original rights-holder, is quite common. This case is a good starting point in researching the spectrum of relationships between a rights holder and the creator of derivative works (see discussion from page 16 on).

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