It is a well-settled copyright axiom that only an original expression of an idea is protectable. In the world of fine art, however, the concept of “original expression” is often too vague to be defined. Dale Chihuly, a world famous glass artist known for designs inspired by sea life, filed a lawsuit in October 2005 that may clarify the concept. He is fighting to protect his distinctive style of glass art in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. Chihuly has accused former employee Brian Rubino of producing glass sculptures that infringe Chihuly’s copyright-protected glass works. The suit also asserts that another individual, Robert Kaindl, is selling Rubino’s copycat sculptures at prices below market value, thus injuring the market value of true Chihuly sculptures.

At the heart of the dispute is whether Chihuly’s style of glass blowing is sufficiently original to be protected by copyright law. Chihuly depicts objects from nature in elaborate, lopsided shapes. The complaint discusses that the off-center nature of his sculptures, in particular, is distinctive. The defendants’ counterclaim, filed in May 2006, contends that they are using methods of glass blowing that have been around for centuries and are not original. They claim that the lawsuit is Chihuly’s attempt to monopolize the glass blowing market behind a smokescreen of copyright law.

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