Is copying enough to infringe Down Under?

The Full Court (Lindgren, Goldberg and Bennett JJ) has allowed the appeal in Elwood v Cotton On. So, for example, contrary to the trial Judge’s ruling, Elwood’s copyright in this:


Elwood New Deal T-shirt
Elwood New Deal T-shirt

was infringed by this:

Cotton On Moscow T-shirt
Cotton On Moscow T-shirt

First, the Full Court agreed with the trial Judge that Elwood’s t-shirt design was properly classified as an artistic work and not a literary work nor both an artistic work and a literary work: the semiotic component – the words and numbers – was too slight for the design to be viewed as an artistic work.

As an aside, the Full Court did not express a view of whether or not the ruling in Anacon that a circuit diagram was both an artistic work and a literary work represented the law in Australia.

Secondly, the Full Court reiterated that infringement was to be tested in 3 steps:

(1) to identify the work in suit in which copyright subsists;

(2) to identify in the alleged infringing work the part taken (ie derived or copied) from the work in suit; and

(3) to determine whether the part taken constitutes a substantial part of the work in suit.

At the stage of identifying the work in suit, the Full Court ruled that it was the work as a whole which needed to be identified.  The Full Court held, however, that the trial Judge had erred by excluding from consideration at this stage those matters which her Honour found were matters of “idea” rather than “expression”.

Cotton On was found, both at trial and on appeal, to have blatantly copied from Elwood’s work. As a comparison of the work and Cotton On’s designs above shows what Cotton On took was the the layout, positioning of elements and the overall “look and feel”.  What it didn’t take were the actual words, symbols and images.

The trial Judge had found this significant, ruling that:

The text and symbols matter. The colours matter. Similarly, unlike Finkelstein J in Autocaps [a reference to Autocaps (Aust) Pty Ltd v Pro-Kit Pty Ltd (1999) 46 IPR 339], I cannot say that what is conveyed by the two prints is the same – it is not.

Having found the error identified above, the Full Court disagreed.  Their Honours found that the layout, selection , arrangement and style of the various elements were a substantial part of the copyright work and so there had been an infringing reproduction.

The means by which the Full Court arrived at this conclusion is significant.

The Full Court had appeared to accept that there may be a role for “ideas” and “expression” at the infringement stage of the inquiry.  However:

35 While the idea/expression dichotomy is basic to the law of copyright, it is a difficult one, particularly in the case of artistic works. What principles are to govern the demarcation? The “idea” underlying a copyright work can plausibly be identified at different levels of generality. The higher the level of abstraction, the more that is left as protectable expression. The lower the level of abstraction, the less that is left as protectable expression. ….


37 A difficulty associated with the idea/expression dichotomy is that the choice of the level of abstraction is subjective and uncertain. Mr Simons’s identification of the underlying concept (see [21] above) was not conclusive.

In contrast, the Full Court preferred a rather more mechanistic approach.  The layout, etc., “look and feel” were substantial because the evidence showed that far more effort went into achieving them:

70 Mr Gillott said that he and Mr Simons tried to achieve a “balance” of the six elements on the front and the five elements on the back, and the proportion they bore to one another. He estimated that there were at least 10 to 15 printouts by Mr Simons on which he (Mr Gillott) wrote his comments and his “scribbles”. He said that the entire process took a good two weeks, but no more than three weeks, from the time he handed over his initial draft to Mr Simons.

71 Mr Gillott described Elwood’s design procedure. He said that the form and shape was settled upon first, and the “type elements”, “wording and text elements”, last. It was after that two to three week period that attention was directed to finalising the wording and text. Mr Gillott said that “once we’re down to inputting the words that we would like in the art, that happens quite quickly”. He explained that it took no more than two days to put those elements into the design, because he “already had the ideas to carry “Raging Bulls” through”, and the expression “Durable by Design” was Elwood’s “core logo”. He said that once those elements were introduced, he signed off on the NewDeal print and it took no more than two days for production to commence.


73 Mr Gillott’s evidence recounted above, which was not contradicted, was to the effect that by far the greater part of the effort, skill and time involved in designing of the NewDeal T-shirt was devoted to layout rather than with the choice of words and numerals. (emphasis supplied)

Two weeks versus two days may seem, perhaps, a rather quantitative approach to the qualitative assessment of judgment and degree which the traditional inquiry into a substantial part is acknowledged to require.

It also turned out that Elwood’s design was in fact a development of its earlier 96ers T.  Unfortunately, an image of that earlier design is not included in the judgment.  Their Honours explained, however, that the New Generation design involved the following differences:

74 There are obvious similarities between the 96ers and the NewDeal design but the NewDeal design contained artistic expressions of an underlying idea that were not found in the 96ers. Mr Gillott and Mr Simons introduced the following features:

curved sections;

some changes to the presentation of the bull’s head trade mark;

new letter forms;

accentuation of the overall V shape;

a balance of the six elements on the front and the five elements on the back; and

changes in the proportions borne by the respective elements to one another.

By taking these features of the NewDeal design or layout, Cotton On reproduced something that was or included a substantial part of that design or layout.

Elwood Clothing Pty Ltd v Cotton On Clothing Pty Ltd [2008] FCAFC 197