Legal Issues

by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
copyright, tie-dye

bonzai, broder bros.

Judge Finds Copyright Lawsuit Over Tie-Dye Shirts Totally Frivolous

from the good-for-him dept

Many may associate tie-dyed shirts with hippies, The Grateful Dead and sharing, but apparently one maker of such shirts thought it owned a copyright on certain designs. Michael Scott points us to the news that a tie-dye shirt maker named Bonzai had claimed that another shirt maker, Broder Bros., had copied two of its tie-dye shirt design patterns and color schemes, but thankfully, the judge not only tossed the suit out as frivolous, but also handed over attorneys' fees as well. The judge found it ridiculous that anyone would claim a copyright on such things, noting that there was nothing original in the designs that made them deserving of copyright protection, and ordered the Copyright Office to cancel the registrations:
Plaintiff admits that the tie-dye spiral design is common and not proprietary," Kauffman wrote, "so its only unique contribution was to select the colors red, white, and blue in one design and orange and yellow in the other."

Kauffman found that neither color combo showed even "a modicum of creativity."

"Red, white, and blue are commonly matched colors, perhaps most notably on the American flag. Orange and yellow are adjacent in the spectrum of colors visible to the human eye," Kauffman wrote.

"Placing these basic, predictable color combinations into a pre-existing design does not satisfy the minimum creativity necessary to establish a valid copyright," Kauffman wrote

As a result, Kauffman concluded that suing over the alleged theft of such copyrighted designs amounted to a misuse of copyright law.

"Plaintiff's claim, based upon its selection of two or three commonly-combined colors in what it admits is an otherwise unprotectable design, is objectively unreasonable and frivolous," Kauffman wrote.
In arguing against having to pay attorneys' fees, Bonzai apparently claimed that since the Copyright Office had granted registration for the copyrights, it had every reason to assume they were valid. Of course, this ignores one simple fact: unlike getting a patent, the process of registering a copyright is about as close to an automatic rubber stamp as you can get. It's certainly nice to see a judge completely dismiss a frivolous copyright claim.

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  • icon
    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), 21 May 2009 @ 6:36pm

    Kauffman for SCOTUS

    Can we somehow organize to champion this guy for the new Court appointment?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 May 2009 @ 6:51pm

    OMG !
    LOL !

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 May 2009 @ 9:39pm

    Having read the court's decision, it seems to me that it is ripe, if appealed, for reversal based at least in part on how the court defined and applied the "originality" standard set forth by the Supreme Court in Feist. What the court appears to do here is correctly recognize the first of the two part test articulated in Feist, but then launch off into a KSR-like line of reasoning is regard to the second part of the Feist test, namely, "creativity". Frankly, at times I thought I was reading a patent law "obviousness" analysis, and not a copyright law "creativity" analysis.

    In my view perhaps the court arrived the correct result, but the "legal path" it followed was painful to read.

    Similarly, "frivolity", award of fees and costs, and an order to cancel the registrations are unusual and more grist for reversal on appeal. Of course, whether or not to appeal is a decision to be made by the copyright holder.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 May 2009 @ 10:44pm

    Does anyone else want to see these shirts as much as I do?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mojo, 22 May 2009 @ 1:04am


    And if you REALLY want to see what these tye-dye shirts looke like, go look at ANY tye-dye shirts. That's sort of the point of this case, they are all essentially the same.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Sean, 22 May 2009 @ 12:08pm

    Mojo is right, but the lawsuit gave specific products, so we can look for ourselves and see just how crazy the claim was.

    The plaintiff's website is at:

    here's a link to the shirts they calimed violated their copyright: or=#

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    ASH, 22 May 2009 @ 1:11pm


    Actually, the judge didn't rule that "any" tie-dye shirt couldn't get copyright, but that these specific two designs couldn't get copyright, because they were just so damn generic. Spiral design, red-white-and-blue color, etc...basically, lacking in the "creation" aspect of creativity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Swede, 22 May 2009 @ 8:53pm

    Tie Dye T-shirts

    Yeah well you know not all tie dyes are the same man. Take a look at my website and you will see lots of differant tie dye patterns and colors being used. But as a tie dyer I think it is good that tie dye can not be copyrighted. It's an art and it's just a t-shirt. Everyone comes out a little differant and yes lots of times just two or three colors are used so to copyright any tie dye that has orange and yellow on it is funny. Peace!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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