Even Mock-Wood Laminate Floor is Entiled to Copyright Protection

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 30, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

While Lumber Liquidators is under a microscope for its potentially toxic laminate flooring, at least one flooring company is getting some good news. After refusing to be walked all over by the competition, Mannington Mills, a laminate manufacturer, has gotten support from the Eleventh Circuit.

After the company designed a rustic, imitation-wood flooring, it soon found almost identical pieces for sale by a competitor. There wasn't much Mannington could do about it, a district court ruled, since the old wood design wasn't original enough to justify copyright protection. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, recognizing the artistry behind plastic flooring and restoring Mannington's copyright protections.

It's Not Easy to Look Old and Bruised

Lest you think designing a laminate floor pattern is a simple task, the court provided a fairly extensive narrative of the process. To capture the feeling of old floors, Mannington's designers started with fresh planks. They stained, scrapped and gouged them to provide an aged look, then extensively edited and retouched photographs of the wood until they were satisfied with the final design. That image, and not laminate flooring it was part of, was copyrighted by Mannington and sold as "Time Crafted Maple."

When Mannington found Home Legend, a competitor, selling a nearly identical flooring, it accused it of infringing on its copyright. Home Legend preemptively sued, arguing that the copyright was invalid and claiming the subject matter was not copyright-eligible.

The district court agreed with Home Legend, find that Glazed Maple was not an original work of authorship, was not a separate element of the flooring, and that the trademark was directed at an idea or process of recreating rustic planks.

Don't Underestimate Laminate Floors

Copyrights protect original works, which require independent creation and "a modicum of creativity." That, the Eleventh Circuit noted, is a low bar. Even a photograph of another art work, so long as it involves minimal creative input, can be copyrighted. While the district court found the design to simply copy elements in nature, the process employed to recreate an aged look was sufficiently creative for the Eleventh.

Mannington's design required the selection and coordination of many separate elements. A phone book, too, selects and coordinates elements but is not eligible for copyright protection, the court noted, because that organization is "practically inevitable." Not so here, where painstaking work went into the selection of stains, scrapes and wear in the wood.

So, next time someone holds their nose up at a some bargain flooring, remember -- it's not just laminate, it's artistry.

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