Now that the Supreme Court has dealt with copyright issues concerning computer code (well, sorta), perhaps the justices will eventually get around to the humanoids who may one day compete for planetary dominance. We’re talking about robots powered by artificial intelligence. What’s the possibility that the future of androids will partly turn on a federal judge’s view of C-3PO, R2-D2, WALL-E and other famous robots appearing in movies? Believe it or not, greater than zero.
In Pennsylvania federal court, an American company is currently suing a Chinese company over interactive robots alleged to be intellectual property violations. Specifically, Digital Dream Labs LLC is pursuing Living Technology LTD. over an “EMO toy robot” and construction vehicle-style robots that supposedly copy the three-dimensional sculpture of its own AI-assisted robot plus graphics, animations and sounds emitted from the robot’s head potentially covered in copyright registrations. Plus, there are also trademark and trade dress claims asserted given the potential for consumer confusion.
The scope of sculptural and audiovisual copyrights, what’s functional and what’s protectable, and how one parses similarity in the robotic realm is merely the beginning of this fascinating dispute.
“This is a case about robots,” states a memorandum from the Chinese defendant in support of a motion to dismiss. “Specifically, toy robots powered by artificial intelligence. Whether it is C-3PO, Johnny 5 or WALL-E, robots are familiar, and consumers have become accustomed, through popular culture, to the idea of interacting with robots that can perform a variety of tasks. These robots often exhibit human characteristics, including movements, gestures and physical traits, and even approximate human emotions.”
The memorandum (which is adorned with lots of pictures) continues, “Indeed, human physical traits, such as eyes, are depicted on these robots by everything from various mechanical components, to graphics on a screen, like BURN-E’s ‘blue eyes.’ The robots at issue in this case, just like their robot movie star counterparts, also have human-like traits and are powered by artificial intelligence to perform various functions and otherwise engage with a user.”
In other words, Living Technology is ridiculing how the Americans are asserting ownership claims over what it sees as commonplace and functional elements while hunting for valid IP claims to fit the protection they seek. The dismissal motion asserts that “claims fail because the discrete items claimed are not copyrightable as a matter of law” and “because even if such discrete items were capable of being independently asserted as a basis of infringement, they are not substantially similar, as a matter of law.”
Digital Dream responded on Friday with an opposition memorandum.
The defendant “is correct that this is a case about robots,” write Digital Dream’s lawyers. “However, in providing examples of various other robots, Living.Ai actually demonstrates that, while the ‘idea’ of a robot is not protectable intellectual property, robots appearing in film – such as C- 3PO® and R2-D2® in Star Wars® and WALL-E® – have distinctive and recognizable faces and features. Living.Ai provides no evidence or confirmation that LucasFilm® or Disney® have surrendered their rights in the designs of these robots to the public domain.”
Here’s the rest of the memorandum that includes the footnote, “Indeed, numerous copyrights have been obtained on C-3PO and R2-D2 characters, including copyrights obtained on C-3PO puppets and an R2-D2 sculptural work. See Exhibit A hereto.”