Court Rules Lego Creation Based on Religious Texts is Eligible for Copyright Protection

In JBrick, LLC v. Chazak Kinder, Inc. et al, 1-21-cv-02883 (EDNY Sep. 21, 2023) (Hector Gonzalez), the District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment regarding the validity of its copyright. 

The plaintiff had created a “unique, accurately scaled, genuine LEGO®-brick interpretation” of the Second Beit Hamikdash, or Second Holy Temple (“Second Holy Temple”).” The plaintiff created a LEGO®-brick Second Holy Temple product (“Second Holy Temple Product”) based on independent research and at least three years of studying historical teachings. The plaintiff also consulted with various rabbis as part of the design process for the Second Holy Temple Product. The plaintiff also testified that the Second Holy Temple Product is a “tangible, sculptural interpretation of what . . . the [Second Holy Temple] may have looked like in real life, based on the written words and interpretation of the Hebrew scholar and philosopher Maimonides.” The plaintiff owns copyright registrations for its Second Holy Temple Product and its photograph of its Second Holy Temple Product (the “Copyright Registrations”).

In the case, Plaintiff alleged that Defendants produced “almost an exact replica” of Plaintiff’s Second Holy Temple Product, containing “all of the unique features that set the JBrick . . . set apart from its competitors.”  In defense, Defendants argued that Plaintiff’s Second Holy Temple Product fails “to exhibit sufficient creativity or originality to be entitled to copyright protection or registration.” Plaintiff responded that it is entitled to summary judgment on Defendants’ copyright invalidity counterclaim because Defendants have produced no evidence that supports their allegations that Plaintiff’s Second Holy Temple Product is not original.

Under the Copyright Act of 1976, a copyright registration creates a rebuttable presumption that the copyright is valid. The presumption of validity may be rebutted “where other evidence casts doubt on the question.” Thus, here, given that the plaintiff has Copyright Registrations, the burden shifts to Defendants to come forward with “evidence that the work[s] [were] copied from the public domain.”

Defendants argued that because information concerning the Second Holy Temple is in the public domain, Plaintiff’s copyrighted works are not original. As a result, Defendants contend that Plaintiff’s Second Holy Temple Product can be copied and used in derivative works. Defendants further argued that a “historically accurate replication does not constitute a new original work.”

Plaintiff responded that: (i) there is no evidence to support that Plaintiff’s depiction of the Second Holy Temple is in the public domain; (ii) there is no evidence that Plaintiff’s depiction is a historically accurate replication because the Second Holy Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. and there are no images from before the building was destroyed; and (iii) in order to create the Second Holy Temple Product, Plaintiff read numerous “written textual descriptions and translated words into a 3D sculpture,” further supporting its originality. 

To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be original to the author. Original, as the term is used in copyright, means only that the work was independently created by the author (as opposed to copied from other works), and that it possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity.” Thus, the Court found Defendants did not provide any evidence that the work had been copied from the public domain. In fact, in response to Plaintiff’s request for the production of documents, the Court noted “that form the basis for or to support or refute the assertion . . . that the [Second Holy Temple Product] is an unoriginal rendition of the [Second] Holy Temple, or that the set would not be copyrightable because it is based on known public domain elements,” Defendants identified four written texts. However, the Court reasoned “a copyright is invalid only if the subject work shows no originality — that is if the copyrighted work is in no way a distinguishable variation on something already in the public domain.”

Thus, the Court found that no reasonable juror could disagree that Plaintiff’s Second Holy Temple Product, which both parties agree is based on a translation of research, analysis, and interpretation of written Jewish religious texts into a 3D sculpture of a structure destroyed in 70 C.E., is sufficiently creative to warrant copyright protection. And, therefore the Court held the plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment on the defendants’ copyright invalidity counterclaim.