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Bucklew v. Hawkins, Ash, Baptie & Co., LLP
329 F.3d 923 (7th Cir. 2003)
Facts: Bucklew (P) developed and copyrighted software that integrated with standard spreadsheet programs such as Excel to complete housing forms known as HUD forms required by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. Affiliate companies referred to in the opinion as "HAB" allegedly copied the program.
Procedural Posture: Bucklew (P) brought copyright infringement suit against defendants in addition to fraud, conversion, and violation of RICO. District Judge dismissed all claims except copyright infringment and entered judgment for plaintiff.
Holding: Only one of four forms was actually copied. Affirmed in part. Reversed in part and remanded to determine damages. Punitive damages are inappropriate.
Important Dicta: "The fact that Bucklew's formatting choices do not reflect a high degree of originality is irrelevant. When as in this case a work in which copyright is claimed is based on work in the public domain, the only "originality" required for the new work to be copyrightable (the very term is a misnomer) is enough expressive variation from public-domain or other existing works to enable the new work to be readily distinguished from its predecessors."
Likely future importance or unanswered questions: This case in this circuit has been referenced as a reason to not apply a heightened level of originality to derivative works. See Shrock v. Learning Curve 586 F.3d 513 (7th Cir. 2009).
Critical Analysis: The court went through a thorough copyright infringement analysis in order to reach a desirable outcome. Starting with identifying the level of similarities the court found only evidence of copying in one form. It pointed out features of the two programs that were unique to all other spreadsheet programs and compared it to an intentional fictitious geographical feature on a map used to catch copyright infringers. Here both had an "output feature" that was used in one of Bucklew's older programs but had no use in the forms at issue in this case. Clearly HAB had copied the form in whole and retained the useless feature. The court concluded through this analysis that only one of the four allegedly copied forms had enough similarity to be considered copied. The court rejected the defendants' arguments of merger, idea/expression dichotomy, and scenes a faire. The court believed that the infringed form contained enough expression in fonts and formatting choices to wisely reject such arguments.