US Copyright Office Says What We’re All Thinking: American Airlines Lacks Creativity

American has been trying to get a copyright on the logo they have been using since they rebranded a few years ago. Specifically, I’m talking about this blue, red, and white thing that’s supposed to look like a wing, or a bird, or something.

The United States Copyright Office refused their request, though American filed a request for reconsideration. Unfortunately that didn’t get them very far, though the response from the US Copyright Office is epic. The five page explanation of why they’re refusing American’s claim is worth a quick read, though here are a couple of the best lines:

“the creative spark is utterly lacking or so trivial as to be virtually nonexistent”

“while the bar for creativity is low, it does exist and the Work cannot glide over even its low heights”

Ouch!! In many ways this is a perfect metaphor for how American is being run in general. They make lazy choices and are unoriginal, and think it will lead to success.

For anyone who is curious about the ruling but doesn’t want to read the entire five page document, here’s a more detailed explanation of why American’s logo can’t be copyrighted:

Simply put, the Work is a dual-colored, curved trapezoid with a bisecting, shaded and curved triangle (i.e., roughly a “beak” shape). The Work thus is comprised of basic geometric shapes. As American acknowledges, copyright does not protect familiar shapes or designs, geometric shapes, or mere variations of coloring. 37 C.F.R. § 202. l(a). American asserts that when a work contains such basic shapes, the copyright in that work can be registered when the shape is transformed beyond its common character by modification, arrangement, or abstraction. See Second Request at 8, 11. American itself does not dispute that the Work consists of underlying geometric shapes, and although it criticizes the Office’s characterization of the Work’s shapes as containing “an elongated rectangle,” it describes the same design element of Work as “trapezoidal.” First Request at 2. Neither insignificant variations in shape, coloring, nor word choice used to describe the Work change its character; trapezoids, rectangles, and triangles are all basic geometric shapes. Further, use of the colors of the United States flag (red, white, and blue) are exceedingly common and do not lend themselves to arguments that the Work’s design choices were especially creative. Finally, to the extent the Work evokes an airplane wing or bird design, that does not propel the design into the range of copyrightability. See Second Request at 5. To the contrary, a very common design choice for an airline logo is to use the outline of a bird’s anatomy. See Birds of a feather flock together, LOGO DESIGN LOVE, https://www.logodesignlove.com/airline-logos (Apr. 26, 2010). In any event, even if a bird motif were unusual in this context, the Work falls below the threshold for creativity required by the Copyright Act.

Thanks to the Copyright Office Review Board for a good laugh!

Comments

  1. Been a while since I did IP law, but note that copyright protection is distinct from a trademark protection (which the logo should still have).

  2. Would love to see what the US Copyright Office would say about the ‘World of Hyatt’ logo. Now that one there is utterly unoriginal and looks like their Adobe Photoshop license expired and they had to use Microsoft Paint to get something out quickly!!

  3. You know, as a marketing/creative professional, I really kind of like American’s new logo. Maybe I’m crazy.

  4. And let’s not even start on United’s (erm, I mean Continental’s) ugly logo and non-existent branding. Their logo is really a “bingo cage”.

  5. The thing is that there was nothing wrong with the old logo. Sure, it was dated, but timeless in its kind of “fuck you we mean business” styling. As soon as I saw the new one, I immediately responded to it as bland, generic, and devoid of any edge.

  6. While I am not a fan of current management, this logo is the fault of the previous bankruptcy administration.

  7. since the day of that new AA logo launch, and to this day, my opinion has been the same – it’s a modern refreshing and soothing design for most of the signs and fuselages …. then get ruined by those glossy red-and-white piano keys on the tail they use as a proxy for the stripes on the flag.

    and the easiest way to detect an “AApologist” would be hearing someone talk about how “amazing” and “instantly recognizable” it is that will “further elevate AA’s global brand image” then 3 seconds later say “people only buy on price and the logo has zero effect” when you tell them about the design flaws of the logo.

  8. Did United and Delta have similar issues? Compared to “globe in a box” and “triangle”, “trapezoids with a beak” seems to be the most creative…

  9. I’m a lawyer who specializes in this field. While AA has the trademark protection, damages in trademark cases can be difficult to obtain. In trademark cases, the focus is usually on getting to stop the junior user or infringer to stop their activities. However, damages in copyright infringement claims are much more common (substantial similarity to the registered work is the standard of review, whereas it is likelihood of confusion in trademark cases). So, this is likely an attempt by AA to monetize its logo. If you have the ability to file suit for copyright infringement (for which a copyright registration is a prerequisite to filing a suit) then you can leverage the damages aspect to extract a settlement that involves monetary compensation.

  10. I like the new logo too.
    I also agree with the copyright office in that it is too trivial to be copyrightable.
    It is probably still protected by trademark laws, so not a big deal for AA.

  11. @Bobby

    Although the United logo looks awful, I’m still a fan of its execution as the Golf Ball and Death Star salt and pepper shakers.

    Yes, I have a set at home.

    No, I’m not ashamed at how I acquired them.

  12. I don’t care if the airline is “creative.”

    I want the airline to reliable and dependable.

    The logo has absolutely nothing to do with my in-flight experience.

    Besides, AA’s safety video is “creative.” It’s also obnoxious, distracting, and far too long. It actually does detract from my traveling experience.

    “Creativity” is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

    Signed,

    An AA EXP

  13. I agree with @anonymouslawyer. I’ve worked for many startups with limited marketing budgets. Our marketing teams did their best to not infringe on trademarks but several times we had companies contact us to stop the infringement. We complied, since they were always oversights, but that was it, there was little else for the trademarked company to do to us.

  14. When the logo first came out, to me it looked like those old military can opener. And shouldn’t it be trademark and not copyright?

  15. the logo is pretty meh, but the new livery (ok its a few years old now) is hands down the best in the US and one of the best in the world.

  16. AA has the largest fleet of any airline in the world. They consistently have a much better international business and first class product than other U.S. competitors and remain the most profitable airline in the world. American Airlines spends billions retrofitting their old plans, repainting the whole fleet, adding TVs, wifi, etc. They give back in so many ways including the Snowball Express, 120,000 community service hours from the team last year, 20million+ miles donated to many charities. I understand you may dislike the logo, (I think their logo and paint job are pretty cool), but you consistently bash what is probably the best airline in this country.

  17. AA isn’t even the best of the Big 3, but ok. And their retrofitting of old birds, including LUS fleet, has been incredibly slow. Where are they adding TV’s? Certainly not on domestic planes. Good PR spin, tho.

  18. At least they came up with a new logo. United and Delta recycled old logos when they did their mergers. Calling them uncreative is misguided.

  19. I’m confused, by the trademark offices definition here, even logos generally considered excellent (e.g. United Tulip, Delta Widget) wouldn’t be copyrightable. If the AA logo is being considered “less” creative or original than either of those two, I have to say I deeply disagree with the copyright offices assessment here.

  20. A little off topic, but is it just me, or do the Korean Air logo and the Pepsi logo look WAY too much alike? Although the Pepsi logo in use since 2014 is a little more interesting, the previous versions were even more similar to the Korean Air one.

  21. @DCA AA has the most employees, makes the most money and has a larger and newer fleet than Delta and United. How exactly are they inferior?

  22. @ James Eden

    AA may be profitable now, but only after it has shed squillions of dollars through Chapter 11, screwing over people to whom it owed money or had made promises.

    That’s anyway a pretty shitty way of doing business.

    But who knows how profitable it would be if you took that into account, along with the government subsidies, the airport support, and the government skewing the market to benefit it (government staff don’t have a choice – only US airlines. No cabotage by foreign airlines. None of that free-market-choice nonsense here…).

    As it happens I quite like the bold stripes on the tail fins. But the rest of their livery including that symbol is very meh.

  23. I’d like to know which logos have “qualified” for copyright protection?! Target stores has one of the most well known logos around but by the Copyrights office description they wouldn’t qualify for a copyright either. So I’m guessing they could only get a Trademark of the logo and American Airlines looks to be in the same boat.

  24. Hmm… It’s American airlines – come on! Didn’t the name give it away already???

    Now if they called themselves “we are terrible and proud to admit it airlines,” I may actually fly with them for being honest.

  25. AAL’s lawyers are not very creative… all they need to do is create a custom color palette for the same underlying design and Copyright that. Simple.

  26. I’d like to see the writer’s source for this article, as it sounds like bullshit to me. I see no one else reporting this.

  27. I think it’s a beautiful logo, its obviously supposed to look like an eagles beak. I love American’s rebranding. The US Copyright office can suck it.

  28. @Jamed – you ignored some of the specifics of my post, but ok. Get back to us when AA’s on-time numbers and customer satisfaction scores increase. Since when did having the “most employees” ever make one enterprise the best?

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