A Fresh Look at Tests for Nonliteral Copyright Infringement

Samuelson, Pamela | July 1, 2013

Determining whether a copyright has been infringed is often straightforward in cases involving verbatim copying or slavish imitation. But when there are no literal similarities between the works at issue, ruling on infringement claims becomes more difficult. The Second and Ninth Circuits have developed five similar yet distinct tests for judging nonliteral copyright infringement. This Essay argues that each of these tests is flawed and that courts have generally failed to provide clear guidance about which test to apply in which kinds of cases.

This Essay offers seven specific strategies to improve the analysis of nonliteral infringements. Courts should do more, for instance, to tailor infringement analysis based on the nature of the works at issue (that is, are they fanciful or artistic works or are they factual or functional?). The goal of this Essay is to offer these strategies as a way to bring greater coherence and consistency to the determination of nonliteral infringements, and to do so in a manner that properly balances the interests of first and subsequent generations of creators.