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Substantial Similarity

Illustrates the "substantial similarity" doctrine from U.S. copyright law, using a set of case summaries.

Satava v. Lowry. 323 F.3d 805 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 540 U.S. 983 (2003)


Satava created glass sculptures of pelagia colorata jellyfish which were realistic in their depiction of the jellyfish’s color and shape. Lowry saw the Satava jellyfish sculptures and started creating his own glass jellyfish sculptures. Satava brought suit, and the district court granted a preliminary injunction enjoining Lowry from making sculptures with

a vertically oriented, colorful, fanciful jellyfish with tendril-like tentacles and a rounded bell encased in an outer layer of rounded clear glass that is bulbous at the top and tapering toward the bottom to form roughly a bullet shape, with the jellyfish portion of the sculpture filling almost the entire volume of the outer, clear glass shroud.

Court's Analysis

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's decision because the district court relied on erroneous legal standard. It found that Lowry's sculptures appropriated only unprotectable elements from Satava's.

Drawing on Aliotti v. R. Dakin & Co., 831 F.2d 898 (9th Cir. 1987), the court stated that “no copyright protection may be afforded to the idea of producing a glass-in-glass jellyfish sculpture or to elements of expression that naturally follow from the idea of such a sculpture.” Satava's depiction of the jellyfish was realistic. His use of a glass enclosure was dictated by custom. These elements belonged to the public domain. Granting protection to them would be equivalent to granting protection to ideas or facts. A certain combination of nonprotectable elements may merit copyright protection. However, the court wrote, “a combination of unprotectable elements is eligible for copyright protection only if those elements are numerous enough and their selection and arrangement original enough that their combination constitutes an original work of authorship.” Satava’s combination of nonprotectable elements did not meet this standard. If the court were to grant copyright protection for that set of elements, it would in practice exclude all other artists from making realistic jellyfish sculptures.

Even though Satava may not use copyright to protect the mere concepts and facts of jellyfish, copyright still protects his original expressions. Some of the protectable elements in Satava’s sculptures included: “the distinctive curls of particular tendrils; the arrangement of certain hues; [and] the unique shape of jellyfishes' bells.” According to the court, Satava’s sculptures were protected “[t]o the extent that these and other artistic choices were not governed by jellyfish physiology or the glass-in-glass medium.” However, Satava’s resulting copyright is “thin” and “protects against only virtually identical copying.”

The court found that the similarities between Satava and Lowry’s sculptures resided not in the protectable elements but in the unprotectable elements. For instance, the sculptures had “tendril-like tentacles [and] rounded bells,” “bright colors,” “a clear outer layer of glass,” and “jellyfish ‘almost filling the entire volume’ of the outer glass shroud.” Also, the jellyfish were "depicted swimming vertically," and their glass shrouds were tapered. As Lowry’s jellyfish sculptures only resembled Satava’s in their nonprotectable elements, there was no infringement of Satava’s copyright.

Works at Issue

Satava's Jellyfish:



Lowry's Jellyfish: