What’s black, white and just plain all over? This lawsuit over a zebra-print pattern.

January 25, 2013

zebra stripes copyrightWho owns the rights with respect to the zebra-stripe pattern? Last time I checked, zebras did not have standing in U.S. courts, so unfortunately, the African equines are out of luck here.

This issue actually came up in a case filed by a fabric company, Meridian Textiles, against Target Corp. and apparel maker Topson Downs of California, Inc.

Meridian sued Target and Topson, alleging that it infringed on the copyrights it holds with respect to four fabric designs. Three of the designs – a lace pattern, an unspecified animal print and something called a burnout design, whatever that is – did not interest me. (The judge decided in favor of Target and Topson with regard to these prints, too.)

The zebra print, however, caught my attention. That is because the judge presiding over the case found that the design was not entitled to copyright protection at all because it merely “reflected zebra stripes as they occur in nature.” He then ordered the U.S. Copyright Office to invalidate Meridian Textiles’ copyright with respect to the zebra pattern.

This surprised me a little.

Zebra stripes do occur in nature, of course. That being recognized, I had assumed Meridian could have said “Well, yes, but our zebra stripe pattern uses these specific shades of black and white” or “Our stripes are of this thickness and we use this formula to achieve a natural undulation” and argued that Target and Topson stole those specific features of its design.

Now, maybe Target and Topson just did not poach Merdian’s design at all, and that is why it could not make that argument. But as I have read coverage of this lawsuit, it seems to me like the judge did not even let the case get that far.

And as long as we are on the topic of artistic designs being inspired by nature, aren’t most floral prints nature-inspired as well? In this case, I would assume a very realistic floral print would receive less protection than a conceptual floral print, since there is more artistic interpretation in the conceptual print, but this case has made me wonder.