Monday, October 4, 2010

Can I clone that robot?

Dear Rich: A team of friends and I are building a replica of a very well known robot from a movie. We'd like to be able to host a site that offers CAD files and schematics for this replica so that people can make their own robots. We plan to offer these plans and instructions completely for free. We understand that the fictional character is copyrighted and that using the name of this robot or the name of the movie from which it came would be a violation, which is why we don't plan to do that. But is the design a protected attribute? Section 102b of the Copyright law states that copyright protection does not extend to any idea or concept. Does that mean that it also extends to the design and layout of a robot? Especially if the one in the film is a prop and ours is a real robot. I also did some extra research and found somewhere that regarding actual products, that reverse engineering and reproduction were an accepted practice in the tangible product world. So I'm a little confused. Optimally we'd like to proceed with the studio's blessing, so we're going to be attempting to seek a license, but we're not even sure what kind of license to seek. We like it that you're building a robot. We could really use a couple of bots around the Dear Rich office. Specifically, we would like a robot that could reach under the couch each morning and locate our glasses. Also, it would be great if it could update our Netflix queue with the week's new DVD releases (preferably filtering it so that it included all new Patricia Clarkson movies), and if it could memorize the expiration dates for the hummus and red pepper tapenade. 
Right you had a question. Section 102b makes it clear that copyright doesn't protect ideas. It's another way of saying that copyright only protects the way you express an idea, not the underlying concept. The principle has been applied to characters in fiction so for example, the idea of using a character who is an anti-social computer hacker is not protectible. But the character would be protected if it's a pierced female hacker who weighs 100 pounds, has a dragon tattoo on her back, likes death metal, shops at Ikea and (spoiler alert) has a creepy Russian gangster father with a burned off face. In other words, it all depends on the degree of expression. The same is true for the design (or appearance) of robots that are characters in films. You are correct that the idea of a robot is not protectible  ... but the appearance of a robot like R2-D2, Robbie, C-3PO or Klaatu (or any other famous movie robot), is probably protectible under copyright. In some ways, one could even argue that a uniquely designed robot is not that much different than a well-crafted sculpture or other three-dimensional artwork.
So, are robots protected or not? Determining whether a robot has enough expression to be protected is a matter sorted out by courts, a factor which would place you at a disadvantage (since you probably can't afford litigation - who can?). Also, to make things even more confusing, the appearance can be protected under trademark and related laws. (What you're doing is not much different than making an audioanimatronic version of a fictional character.) 
What about reverse engineering? Reverse engineering wouldn't have much to do with your situation. First, you're not reverse engineering the robot (because the movie robot apparently doesn't function for real) and second, reverse engineering is primarily a defense used in trade secret disputes.
Bottom Line Dept. Best of luck acquiring rights. No need to wonder about what rights to ask for ... if the studio wants to go ahead with it, they'll tell you what rights you can have. By the way, it appears as if the film Metropolis is in the public domain, so there's one robot that's freely available for exploitation.