The “Starball” logo of the Union des Associations Européennes de Football (“UEFA”) consists of a round ball made up of black stars, with white polygons in the negative space between the stars. In 2016, UEFA filed an application with the United States Copyright Office to register the Starball as a work of two-dimensional visual art. The Copyright Office was not impressed and, on July 30, 2018, the Copyright Office Review Board (“CORB”) affirmed denial of registration. Here are UEFA’s four arguments for registration, and why the Copyright Office shot down each one.
- Look at those curves!
Familiar geometric shapes, such as stars, are not subject to copyright protection. UEFA argued that there was nothing “familiar” about the Starball stars, since they are irregularly curved in order to fit within the overall round shape of the ball. CORB disagreed and held that, even with the curves, the stars (and the polygons too) were recognizably familiar shapes that were insufficiently creative. Citing Section 906.1 of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, CORB further held that the overall combination of these familiar shapes demonstrated only a de minimis level of creativity that did not warrant copyright protection (similar to the Compendium’s example of a simple collection of white circles on a purple background).
- A few good shapes
The Copyright Office also refused registration in part because Section 905 of the Compendium provides that “merely bringing together only a few standard forms or shapes with minor linear or spatial variations” does not exhibit a sufficient amount of creative expression. UEFA argued that this standard did not apply because the Starball was made up more than a “few” shapes. Rather, it consisted of no less than nineteen elements (I actually count twenty). CORB chided UEFA for “narrowly focusing” on the word “few” while ignoring the rest of Section 905, which provides that “works that consist entirely of uncopyrightable elements” will not be registered unless their selection and arrangement is sufficiently creative. According to CORB, shoving nineteen (or twenty) common shapes into the circumference of a circle was not creative.
- Inapposite cases
UEFA argued that the refusal of registration for the Starball was inconsistent with a bunch of federal district court opinions regarding other works consisting of geometric shapes. For example, in Hoberman Designs v. Gloworks Imps., the Central District of California held that the use of combined geometric shapes in the Hoberman Mini Sphere toy could be eligible for copyright protection. CORB distinguished each of the cases cited by UEFA on the grounds that they involved three-dimensional shapes, distinctive color schemes, and/or other “creative additions.”
- The World of Illusion
Finally, UEFA argued that the Starball deserved copyright protection “because the stars and polygons are positioned to create the illusion of a three-dimensional sphere.” UEFA claimed that this illusion “is keenly important in that it shows that the placement of the elements are not linear; and in order to create the illusion, the elements had to be placed with more than just minor spatial variation” (just for fun, trying reading that again to yourself in a Doug Henning voice). But CORB was not interested in speculating about the importance of an “illusion” on the mind of the viewer. Citing to Section 310.3 of the Compendium, CORB held that in determining eligibility for copyright protection, it would only consider the objective appearance of the Starball; not the “symbolic meaning or impression” that a work supposedly evokes in the mind of a viewer.
One last thing. Just in case this copyright refusal is giving you some ideas about selling your own Starball merchandise, bear in mind that the device is already registered as a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and we’ve read that UEFA is not shy about protecting its brand.