When you create art or design products based on natural forms and images, protecting them from imitators or copycats can present a problem. That's because works that incorporate natural forms must meet certain qualifications in order to receive the full protections possible under copyright and patent law.
Nature: the Public's Domain
Copyright and design patents have some limitations when applied to works and products based around things occurring in nature. Natural forms and images are part of the public domain, which means that no person can own a copyright or a patent on them. Keeping natural objects in the public domain ensures that nature remains open to use by everyone, which benefits the public by fostering expression and increasing the number of creative works and products that enter the market.
While no one may copyright or place design patents on nature itself, the creator of an artistic or useful expression involving nature may obtain a copyright or design patent on their particular work. For example, if an artist draws a faithful reproduction of a flower, she probably won't be able to prevent another artist from creating a very similar drawing of a flower since the flower belongs in the public domain.
If, on the other hand, the artist creates a very unique, stylized picture of the flower, she can likely obtain a copyright on that image. The more a representation of a natural object incorporates the artist's own creative expression, the better the chances of obtaining copyright protection on that representation.
What Copyright Law Can (and Can't) Do
As mentioned above, copyright law will not give an artist the exclusive right to natural shapes and images depicted in the work. An artist cannot copyright the pattern of a zebra's stripes, for example. Although an artist can't copyright zebra stripes, an artist could create a unique cartoon image of a zebra and then employ copyright law to prevent other artists from using the cartoon. That's because if an artist adds her own artistic touch to a natural image, she can obtain a copyright over their individual work. At that point, copyright law will prevent anyone else from displaying or reproducing the artist's work.
Many products in the marketplace incorporate natural images and shapes in some way. The creators of those products may be able to use design patents to prevent competitors from using the same design on their products.
Some natural representations that wouldn't qualify for a copyright because they are too similar to nature may qualify for a design patent. Obtaining a design patent can be an expensive and lengthy process, but it also offers strong protection for functional art that depicts natural shapes.
In order to obtain a design patent, the design must accompany a functional product and the creator must submit a patent application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office within one year of the design's first use or disclosure.
Hiring an Experienced Attorney
If you're interested in obtaining a copyright or patent on a work or design that incorporates natural objects, you can speak to a qualified intellectual property attorney today to learn more.