Copyrighting "ME": Copyright Issues Involving Commissioned Work

By Dongtao Li, LL.M., Judge of The People’s Court of Haidian District, Beijing, China.

(Posted on January 6, 2011. This article was previously published in Judge Li's book Dongtao on Law.)

The plaintiff is a graphic design company, and the defendant is the Modern Electronic Market. In May 1995, these two parties orally agreed that the plaintiff would make a copper plaque and would design a logo for the defendant's company name. As requested, the plaintiff designed a logo composed of two letters from the defendant’s business name: M and E (M from “modern”, E from “electronic”). In the logo, the two letters were overlapped partially; the defendant approved this design.

However, after the plaintiff put the “ME” logo onto the copper plaque and delivered it to the defendant, the latter refused to accept or pay for it on the grounds that it did not meet the requirements of the oral agreement. Without informing the plaintiff, the defendant later commissioned another party to make another copper plaque as well as a billboard, both of which used the “ME” logo originally designed by the plaintiff.

The plaintiff sued the defendant for copyright infringement. The defendant admitted to having commissioned the plaintiff to make a copper plaque but argued there was no copyright infringement.

The court held that the copyright infringement was established. First, affixing a letter M or E or the two letters lined-up in a perceptible form is not original, for anyone learning English is able to do so. However, in this case, the plaintiff designed a logo using the first two letters from the defendant’s business name, overlapped the two letters in a two-dimensional pattern, and then reshaped and decorated the design. As a result, an aesthetic effect was created, which precisely illustrated the meaning of originality when referring to a copyrightable work.

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