Copyright Claim in Digital Message Format Fizzles Out
The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that digital message formats and messages generated using those formats were not copyrightable and thus vacated a preliminary injunction against an alleged infringer marketing a competing product using the same format and messages. Pyrotechnics Management Inc. v. XFX Pyrotechnics LLC et al., Case No. 21-1695 (3d Cir. June 29, 2022) (Hardiman, Nygaard, Fisher, JJ.)
Pyrotechnics, a manufacturer of hardware and software for fireworks displays, developed a system for controlling fireworks displays. The system contains a control panel that accepts user input and creates messages that it sends to field modules, which decode the messages and perform the desired task (e.g., igniting a firework). FireTEK reverse-engineered Pyrotechnics’ hardware to learn its communication protocol and, in 2018, developed a router that could send the same messages to Pyrotechnics’ field modules as the Pyrotechnics control panel. FireTEK marketed its router as a replacement for Pyrotechnics’ control panel.
In 2019, Pyrotechnics filed a deposit copy document with the US Copyright Office describing the communication protocol used in its fireworks control panel. Pyrotechnics’ communication protocol includes three components: a custom digital message format, specified individual messages that conform to the format and communicate specific information and a transmission scheme describing how individual digital messages are converted into a format that can be sent over the wires that connect the control panel to the field modules. The deposit copy also identified four specific messages (each a series of 12 bytes) that used Pyrotechnics’ digital message format. The Copyright Office issued a certificate of registration.
Pyrotechnics filed suit against fireTEK for copyright infringement, claiming that fireTEK violated Pyrotechnics’ copyright in the communication protocol it uses to control fireworks displays. Pyrotechnics sought and received a preliminary injunction from the district court enjoining fireTEK from selling or distributing its allegedly infringing router. FireTEK appealed.
FireTEK contested the district court’s likelihood of success finding, arguing that Pyrotechnics’ copyright in its communication protocol was invalid. The Third Circuit agreed, finding that neither the digital message format used by Pyrotechnics in its communication protocol nor the individual messages conforming to that format were copyrightable.
Turning first to Pyrotechnics’ digital message format, the Third Circuit found that the format was an uncopyrightable idea, not a protectable expression of ideas. Relying heavily on its 1986 decision in Whelan Assocs. v. Jaslow Dental Lab’y, the Court explained that “the purpose or function of a utilitarian work is the work’s idea.” For Pyrotechnics’ communication protocol, the purpose and function of the protocol (and therefore its idea) was to enable Pyrotechnics’ control panel and field modules to communicate with each other. As the Court explained, the digital message format created by Pyrotechnics was an essential part of that idea, and there was no other means of achieving the purpose of the communication protocol (permitting communication between the control panel and field modules) without using Pyrotechnics’ digital message format. Therefore, the Court determined that Pyrotechnics’ digital message format was part of an uncopyrightable idea.
The Third Circuit also held that the individual digital messages listed in the deposit copy were uncopyrightable because they were “insufficiently original to qualify for copyright protection.” Because the entire purpose of the digital message format was to provide rules for constructing messages, and the individual messages simply applied those rules, the Court found that the messages were “no more than an ‘inevitable sequence dictated by the logic’” of the digital message format. Any originality in selecting a value for one of the bytes in the message was, at most, de minimis.
The Third Circuit pointedly noted that Pyrotechnics did not deposit or seek to copyright its source or object code, both of which are copyrightable under Third Circuit copyright law.
The Third Circuit therefore vacated the district court’s preliminary injunction and remanded with instructions to dismiss Pyrotechnics’ copyright infringement claim with prejudice.
Practice Note: The Third Circuit has indicated that digital message formats and individual digital messages using those formats are not copyrightable. Practitioners should explore alternative sources of intellectual property protection, including source code and object code copyright registrations, to safeguard their innovations and unique communication formats.
Leslie Ramirez, a summer associate in the New York office, also contributed to this case note.