Does the Copyright Office Know Anything about Design?

American Airlines Logo

Last week American Airlines failed in its second attempt to register its logo with the U.S. Copyright Office. Apparently the body was unimpressed by the level of distinction inherent in the diagonal shape, meant to suggest both a wingspan and a runway and interrupted in the middle by a stylized eagle’s head. In a written explanation a spokeperson said, “A mere simplistic arrangement of non-protectable elements does not demonstrate the level of creativity necessary to warrant protection.”

This current logo is of course the one that, back in 2013, replaced American Airlines’ longstanding and iconic Massimo Vignelli-designed identity. While I prefer Vignelli’s, I’m surprised by this rejection by the Copyright Office. First, it’s surprising that a major corporation with the heft of American Airlines has been unable to push through a successful copyright application. You would expect them to have more sway.

But I’m more interested in the fact that the Copyright Office is essentially rendering a design judgment here. I know nothing about its operations, but a quick look at the body’s web site shows that its leadership team is largely composed of lawyers and policy makers. I don’t doubt their expertise in copyright law of course, but do they know design? What level of expertise do they have in logotypes and corporate identity, and is that even a required area of knowledge to serve on this board?

More to the point, shouldn’t there be a designer on their leadership team at the U.S. Copyright Office, someone with proven experience in the design industry who can help give context to cases like this? I’d never thought about whether there should be design representation in copyright before, but now I’m very curious about how our industry’s work is affected by how this body operates and renders judgments. To my eyes, this logo is easily more than a “simplistic arrangement of non-protectable elements.” It’s not exactly my taste, but it’s as good as countless others out there.