Randy Stratton v Upper Playground Enterprises

Case Name and Cite:
Randy Stratton v. Upper Playground Enterprises, Inc., CV09-8796 PSG (C.D. Cal. 2009)

Facts of the case:
Plaintiff Randy Stratton wrote and illustrated a book entitled “Build This Bong: Instructions and Diagrams for 40 Bongs, Pipes and Hookahs.” Stratton protected his intellectual property by obtained copyright registrations for the book and the illustrations contained within.
Defendant Upper Playground Enterprises is t-shirt designer and distributor. Upper Playground gave a copy of Stratton’s book and instructed a designer to “take the designs from the book to create a t-shirt for Upper Playground.” Upper Playground went on to design and sell t-shirts displaying Stratton’s illustrations. They received a letter from Stratton’s lawyers on July 9, 2009 requesting that they immediately cease the sale of the t-shirts. Upper continued to sell these t-shirts for another two months.

Procedural Posture:
On December 1, 2009, Stratton filed a complaint with the US District Court for the Central District of California complaining that Upper Playground’s shirts amounted to copyright infringement. Stratton motioned for summary judgment.

The court granted summary judgment to Stratton finding that Underground had infringed on the valid copyrights and there was no reasonable dispute about the material facts. The court reiterated that §102 clearly protects an original work of authorship. Stratton’s copyrights were not invalid because they possess the requisite minimal level of creativity, they were not actually useful articles themselves but merely portrayals of a bong, and they were not actually for the process of making a bong.

Likely future importance:
This case will encourage creators to ensure their protection by following all relevant procedures. While copyright protection does not require formal application and registration, it was helpful for defending against the invalid copyright arguments presented by Upper Playground. Also, Stratton’s lawyers took necessary steps by asking Upper Playground to cease distribution and were able to show proof of this to the court.
There is also a lesson against bad lawyering. Upper Playground attempted to defend itself on the grounds that Stratton’s claims were invalid. The court rejected each, some of them because Upper Playground’s lawyer’s confused or conflated the requirements for copyright protection and patent protection. In IP, as in other areas of law, it is important for the advocate to be fully informed of, inter alia, the facts, issues, legal arguments at play.

Critical Analysis:
As we learned in Baker v. Selden, the idea-expression dichotomy limits copyright protection to the expression of ideas (the book) and does not extend to the underlying idea. Nonetheless, in this case, the underlying illustrations themselves were copyrighted as creative expressions. It is important to note that sometimes, the individual underlying components of the expression can be copyrighted in those cases it would be prudent to take the precaution to obtain copyrights for both the idea and expression.
Also, as in patent law, it is important for the creator to limit his claims to what precisely he/she has invented. Judge Gutierrez pointed out that it would have been unwise for Stratton to claim that he invented the actual bong or the process of making a bong. Stratton only claimed what he was entitled to, which was the book and illustrations depicting the bong.


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