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Bibbero Systems v. Colwell Systems

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Citation Edit

Bibbero Sys., Inc. v. Colwell Sys., Inc., 731 F. Supp. 403 (N.D. Cal. 1988) (full-text), aff’d, 893 F.2d 1104 (9th Cir. 1990) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

The Plaintiff designed and marketed blank forms, known as "superbills," which doctors use to obtain reimbursements from insurance companies. The Plaintiff claimed a copyright in those forms since 1984. In 1987, the Defendant's catalogue displayed a "superbill" form identical to the Plaintiff's form, except the typefaces, shading, and sample information were different. The Plaintiff, after becoming aware of the Defendant’s form, submitted a copyright application to register the "superbill" form with the Copyright Office. The Copyright Office granted a registration certificate to the Plaintiff, and the Plaintiff demanded that the Defendant stop infringing its copyright. The Defendant disregarded the demand and the Plaintiff brought suit for a preliminary injunction to prevent the Defendant’s catalogue and future catalogues from containing the "superbill" form.

District Court Proceedings Edit

The district court granted summary judgment to the Defendant, holding that a billing form was an uncopyrightable blank form designed for recording information under the rule announced in Baker v. Selden.[1]

Appeal Court Proceedings Edit

Copyright infringement Edit

On appeal, the Plaintiff argues the "superbill" form conveys information and therefore is copyrightable. First, the Plaintiff cited the well-established exception asserting when copyrightable text on the blank forms has explanatory force, the blank form becomes copyrightable. Additionally, the Plaintiff cited Norton Printing Co. v. Augustana Hospital[2] and Harcourt Brace & World, Inc. v. Graphic Controls[3] as support to the claim that the "superbill" form is copyrightable.

The court concluded the well-established exception is inapplicable. The court reasoned, because the form contained simple instructions for the patient to follow, and did not carry the same instructional effect presented in precedent cases, the "superbill" form did not qualify as an exception. Furthermore, The court rejected Norton Printing because "dislike for the blank form rule would appear to be without foundation." Also, the court dismissed the Harcourt Brace because the form in that case contained "unique symbols to guide the students in recording their answers and explanation and answers appeared on some of the answer sheets." The court applied the Eleventh Circuit's approach to the blank form rule in John H. Harland Co. v. Clarke Checks[4] The court reasoned, in the present case, since

doctors do not look to the [Plaintiff's] superbill in diagnosing or treating patients. The 'superbill' is simply a blank form, which gives doctors a convenient method for recording services performed.

Therefore, the "superbill" form is an uncopyrightable blank form for recording information. Thus, the court reaffirmed the district court’s decision and found for the Defendant.

Attorney's fees Edit

The second issue presented was whether the Defendant is entitled to attorney's fees. Under U.S.C §505 a court is allowed to award attorney's fees to the prevailing party. However, there is a distinction between an award of fees to a prevailing plaintiff and prevailing defendant. In a copyright infringement claim a defendant must prove the Plaintiff’s claim was frivolous or brought in bad faith under Jartech, Inc. v. Clancy.[5] The Defendant argued bad faith, asserting that the Plaintiff harasses and threatens its competitors with copyright infringement suits. However, the court found nothing in the record to indicate the Plaintiff brought suits to harass competitors. As a result, although the Defendant prevailed they did not prove the Plaintiff's bad faith in bringing the claim.

Lastly, the Defendant argued that frivolousness or bad faith does not need to be proved since their claim prevailed on summary judgment. The Plaintiff argued that "the purpose of §505 is to encourage plaintiffs to assert colorable copyright claims and to deter infringement." However, because "a court determines that a claimed copyright is invalid does not mean that the plaintiff has not presented a colorable claim." Thus, the court held that adopting the Plaintiff’s argument would undermine §505. Moreover, the court found no merit in any of the Defendant's arguments and did not award the Defendant attorney's fees under §505.

References Edit

  1. 101 U.S. 99 (1880)(full-text) (blank forms that do not convey information are not copyrightable).
  2. 155 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 133 (N.D. Ill. 1967) (finding a medical laboratory test form containing checklist is copyrightable because of the distinct form and arrangement).
  3. 329 F. Supp. 517 (S.D.N.Y. 1971) (full-text) (held the test answer sheets were copyrightable because the sheets were designed to guide the student in recording their answer and thus conveys information).
  4. 207 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 664 (N.D. Ga. 1980), aff'd, 711 F.2d 966, 219 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 515 (11th Cir. 1983) (full-text) (reaffirming the blank form rule without modification as articulated under Baker v. Selden).
  5. 666 F.2d 403, 407 (9th Cir. 1982) (full-text), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 879 (1983).

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