Copyright Law

by Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently issued a decision in Blehm v. Jacobs, No. 11-1479, that provides a well-reasoned overview of current copyright law.  In Blehm, the plaintiff artist sued the defendant Life is Good Company for copyright infringement, alleging that the defendants’ stick figure drawings infringed on the plaintiff’s copyright for his own stick figure drawings.  The similarity between the designs is readily apparent, yet the Tenth Circuit determined, as a matter of law, that the two were not sufficiently similar to constitute copyright infringement:

                            (Plaintiff)                                                                                                                     (Defendant)








To prove copyright infringement, a plaintiff must show that the defendant’s work is substantially similar to the plaintiff’s protected work.  At first glance, the defendants’ stick figure drawings appear very similar to the plaintiff’s protected stick figure drawings.  For instance, both the plaintiff’s and the defendants’ drawings portray stick figures with disproportionately large, white, half-moon smiles.  Moreover, both the plaintiff and the defendants portray their stick figures in similar poses, engaging in similar activities.  In the above drawings, for example, both stick figures are posing with one arm down and one arm raised in a peace sign, and both stick figures have feet turned outward, facing in opposite directions.

Nevertheless, despite the striking similarities between the plaintiff’s and the defendants’ stick figure drawings, the court held that the defendants’ stick figure drawings do not infringe on the plaintiff’s copyrighted stick figure drawings.  The court began with the bedrock principle that copyright law only protects an author’s original expression; copyright law does not protect the ideas embodied in an author’s expression.  Thus, the plaintiff has no copyright over the idea of a stick figure catching a Frisbee or making a peace sign, nor does the plaintiff have a copyright over the poses associated with playing Frisbee or making a peace sign.  Likewise, the plaintiff does not have a copyright over the anatomical features of a person, such as hands, feet, or a smile.

Nevertheless, the plaintiff does have a copyright over the particular stylistic choices made in drawing his stick figures, for instance, the stick figure’s black face containing only a white, disproportionately large half-moon smile.  However, the court's careful review of the protectable elements of the different drawings found that the defendants’ stick figures had not copied the plaintiff’s style.  Although the plaintiff’s and the defendants’ stick figures contain disproportionately large, white half-moon smiles, the defendants’ smile has a sharper angle than the plaintiff’s smile.  Likewise, the defendants’ smile is portrayed as a black outline on a white head with sunglasses.  Contrarily, the plaintiff’s smile is located on a black face containing no other facial features (i.e., the plaintiff’s face does not have any eyes).  In addition, the defendants’ stick figure has a disproportionately large head in comparison with its body, while the plaintiff’s stick figure has a head that is relatively proportional to its body.  The defendants’ stick figure has four stubby fingers, whereas the plaintiff’s stick figure has three longer fingers.  Although both the plaintiff’s and defendants’ stick figures show feet facing outward, that pose is unprotected under copyright law and the protectable elements, such as the size and shape of the feet, are different in the two sets of drawings.

Overall, the Blehm case demonstrates the principle of copyright law that mere ideas contained in a copyrighted work are not protected.  Rather, only an author’s particular expression of such ideas is protectable and protected and where the similarities between two works lie solely in unprotected features, summary judgment is appropriate in favor of the accused infringer.

For further information regarding the Blehm decision or copyright law, please contact Jeffrey Techentin at (401) 274-7200 or

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C. | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C.

Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C. on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.