In Which I Use Multiple Materials To Write About Separating Separability

Crafting and Separability

Crafting became the must-have feature in a video game after Minecraft’s astounding success. Since this game mechanic became the bandwagon that no studio could NOT jump on, games varied the complexity, the modularity, and the reversibility of the crafting. (They also varied the intuitiveness of the system, but that’s a different complaint.)

In some games, players can get either raw materials or modular pieces back by deconstructing items that they have crafted: Diablo 3 (random chances for raw materials when salvaging items), Fallout 4 (gives modular pieces rather than raw materials), Elder Scrolls Online, Fortnite (weapons, but not buildings), Destiny 2 (arguably, this deconstruction is functionally more like selling it), Borderlands: Pre-Sequel (the grinder will turn a trio of items into an item of equal or greater value, with random chances for quality).

In other games, players do not have the opportunity to recover resources after crafting an item (though frustrated players have created game mods to allow deconstruction): Minecraft, Darkmoon (the Sword of Talon cannot be unmade), Skyrim, Warframe, Don’t Starve, Stardew Valley, Dragon Age: Inquisition (in Single Player you can remove addons; you can deconstruct in multiplayer), Dead Rising, Terraria.

For video games, the decision to allow players to salvage or reuse item parts is about game balance. When crafting an item includes a random chance of an additional benefit, game designers are aware of the possibility for players to deconstruct and reconstruct until they get the additional benefit they want. When the crafted item does not bring new benefits, game designers still have to evaluate the way that players will obtain resources.

There is another concern about balance when courts examine the possibility to conceptually deconstruct an object into the raw materials of function and aesthetic. Courts must be careful to afford the correct category of intellectual property protection based on the nature of the subject matter seeking legal protection. Unfortunately, determining function vs aesthetic is controversial at best, and it can sometimes feel more like a game with an RNG element added to item deconstruction.


Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands

In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled on a dispute between two companies that make cheerleading outfits. The court did not rule about whether a copyright infringement actually happened in this case. Instead, the court sent the case back to a lower court to decide that—but the court sent the case back along with a new rule about copyright protections. The new rule is that if a part of something can be “perceived” as art that would qualify for copyright protection, then the whole thing can be protected by copyright:

“an artistic feature of the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or in some other medium if imagined separately from the useful article.”

“Useful articles” are generally not protectable by copyright (they should instead usually be subject to patents, which work very differently from copyright protection).

Before this ruling, many lower courts had created (often similar) tests to evaluate the aesthetic elements of a larger object or article. One effect of this ruling is that it forges, out of the raw materials of many separability tests, one single separability test for all US courts.


Is Star Athletica compatible with 17 USC 9?

In the 1980s, computer hardware manufacturers were concerned about getting the right kind of protection for computer chips for the new micro processors that were becoming popular. More specifically, they were concerned about protecting a very specific piece of the chip production process: the photomask (aka mask work). The mask work is the 3-D blueprint and stencil for the manufacture of a silicon microchip.

The concern was that patents would either not apply or not give adequate protection (as far as I was able to find in research, this fear was never put to the test in courts, and I remain unpersuaded that the mask works would not qualify for either a design or a utility patent). However, the functional nature of the photomask device (as a key part of a manufacturing process) precluded it from copyright and trademark protection. The computer industry successfully lobbied congress, and a new section was added to chapter 17 of the United States Code. Despite the fact that the title of chapter 17 is simply “Copyrights,” section 9 is distinctly unlike the copyright protections described in other sections: it protects a specific, functional category of objects (mask works), offers a different length of protection, and prescribes different statutory damages for infringement.

Generally speaking, the law tries to avoid redundancy and overlap. Does Star Athletica decision create some kind of redundancy or overlap with 17 USC 9? Star Athletica allows for functional articles to be subject to copyright if there is an aesthetic element found in the functional article. The court does not carefully explain whether an aesthetic element must be, in itself, not functional (nor is the term “functional” defined). There is no overlap if Mask Works lack an aesthetic element—despite the fact that they look like art in themselves, there is probably no element of the Mask Work which is not functional, which may preclude the possibility of an aesthetic element. Inasmuch the Star Athletica decision should be read as not creating redundancy or overlap with existing statutes, this decision must be interpreted as a ruling that there are no aesthetic elements that are separable from the mask work that would be subject to copyright protection.

Separating Hard Cases of Inseparability: Ribbon Racks

Measuring Star Athletica against 17 USC 9 is important because of the difficult cases in Intellectual Property where functionality and aesthetics are not clearly distinct. Function and aesthetic are often broad cues for which type of protection a thing may be subject to receive (or prohibit from receiving). A seminal example is “ribbon rack” bicycle racks: the ubiquitous bicycle racks that take the form of an undulating metal ribbon were the subject of a copyright lawsuit (as well as trademark). The SDNY court ruled that:

“While the RIBBON Rack may be worthy of admiration for its aesthetic qualities alone, it remains nonetheless the product of industrial design. Form and function are inextricably intertwined in the rack, its ultimate design being as much the result of utilitarian pressures as aesthetic choices. . . . Thus there remains no artistic element of the RIBBON Rack that can be identified as separate and ‘capable of existing independently, of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.’”

The dissent in the case felt that this thinking entirely destroyed any hope of conceptual separability. This disagreement draws out the challenging questions: whether, when, and how aesthetic elements can be distinguished or delineated or extracted from a functional article.


Star Athletica In the Context of the Intellectual Property Landscape

Design Patents cover the non-functional ornamental elements of an invention. The Star Athletica case might expand copyright closer to design patent territory. Most cases will be able to still separate the two, mostly on the basis of subject-matter and/or whether the subject was issued a copyright registration or a design patent. Nevertheless, I predict that either (1) there will be a case to settle an argument between the USPTO and the Library of Congress as to who ought to have jurisdiction over a specific subject-matter, or (2) a case will have to decide on something that could conceivably be claimed by either, and a court will need to effectively adjust either Star Athletica or a patent statute in order to make a coherent ruling.

The Star Athletica decision demonstrates that intellectual property is both unified and divided by questions over functionality and aesthetic: IP is unified by these questions because no other area of law is so focused on this philosophical point; IP is divided by the answer to this question because different categories of IP will apply based on the functional or aesthetic nature of the object or article under question. At the same time that more academics and attorneys are pushing for less use of the term “intellectual property,” cases like Star Athletica and Converse v ITC push patents, trademarks, and copyright analysis closer together, focusing on two common questions: What is functional and what is aesthetic? How do we separate them when both are present?


Inseparable Bundle of Distinct Intellectual Properties

There is an ongoing push to separate the pieces of Intellectual Property Law (copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret). Some attorneys and academics want people to stop using the term “intellectual property” entirely, citing confusion for both the public and the courts.

One of the core arguments is that “intellectual property” can be broken into more fine, discrete elements (copyright, patent, trademark, and trade secret). However, each of these categories can be broken into subcategories, areas, and elements. One author recently wrote that a discussion on fair use has nothing to do with patent law. However, a discussion on fair use of academic papers also has nothing to do with ephemeral recordings, royalties for mechanical licenses, or protection for mask works (which are explicitly not subject to copyright but are still included in chapter 17 of the USC). The mere fact that a broad category can be understood as made up of smaller categories is not sufficient reason to entirely reject the notion of the broader category… But this issue should be fully addressed separately, in a different blog post.


In a game with crafting, the designers have established a method for deconstruction or they have decided not to include such a method. A player can either have the expectation of deconstructing an item, or the player knows that item crafting will permanently destroy the materials used (except in Elder Scrolls Online, when some items just don’t show up for deconstruction and no one knows why except that it’s a Bethesda game). In cases of intellectual property, the courts may or may not find that an object or article can be conceptually separated into functional and aesthetic elements. However, when the court does find that such separability is possible, Star Athletica will guide the court’s evaluation of the separated elements.