‘375 Fresh New Ideas’ Not Copied: IPC Media Ltd V Highbury-SPL Publishing Ltd

The publishers of IDEAL HOME magazine have lost their claim of copyright infringement against a rival home decorating magazine. IPC Media Limited claimed that the publishers of HOME magazine, Highbury-SPL Publishing Limited, had copied the covers and certain parts of the internal sections of three issues of IDEAL HOME. The High Court found no copying and the action failed.

IPC alleged that Highbury copied aspects of the design, subject matter, theme and presentational style of IDEAL HOME in its HOME magazine. Specifically, they alleged that the covers were copied insofar as the title was printed in the same but (differently bastardised) font upon a full-page “bleed” photograph and was underlined by a strap line written in a “reversed out box”, while the numerals “typically” featured a single outsized digit and the main area (the “hotspot”) displayed an “eye-catching word or phrase in white letters” and text appears across the bottom quarter of the cover.

Though the claim was one of infringement of artistic copyright, the wording of the strapline in IDEAL HOME, namely “Britain’s best-selling decorating magazine” was also said to be “similar” to that of the strapline in HOME (“the UK’s best-selling home-interest magazine”). IPC also alleged that the cover photographs used were similar and that the phrase “345 Fresh new ideas for every room. We love them so will you!” was copied from “375 new ideas for every room – Looks you’ll love”.

The court reiterated that the law of copyright does not protect “general themes, styles or ideas” and warned that “chipping away and ignoring all the bits which are undoubtedly not copied may result in the creation of an illusion of copying in what is left”. While accepting that the claim had been made in good faith, it held that “IPC has ignored the enormous number and visual importance of the differences between the parties’ respective products so as to create similarity by excision”.

The court found that IPC’s case was so focused on the “Design Elements” of magazine publishing (e.g. design, subject matter, cover style) that they “appeared to be asserting copyright in those Design Elements rather than in the covers and articles themselves”. The court agreed that the similarities were mostly due to both parties designing their magazines “in accordance with common design conventions utilizing common design expedients” and that “none of the individual ingredients … is other than standard or common in this trade”. The court added specifically that the similar straplines were both “utterly trite” and that it is to be expected that designers “approaching a similar design objective and using standard design techniques will arrive at a design which, at a suitably high level of generality, includes similar features [and bears] no indication of copying”.

IPC’s case was that the similarities were too numerous and close to be explicable by coincidence. The court, however, criticised IPC for concentrating on areas of similarity “divorced from the numerous differences and also divorced from the essentially routine nature of the design elements relied on [resulting in] a misleading picture”. The court also criticised IPC for pleading their case using the words “usually”, “occasionally” and “typically” which are “inappropriate in particulars of copyright infringement” and only “blurs the infringement claim”.

IPC was further criticised for alleging “dishonest conduct without the beginnings of evidence to support it” and for presenting “minor similarities” with only a high level of generality which were shown to exist in many other third party magazines. The court concluded by saying that even if HOME had been “inspired” by IDEAL HOME “it would have been at far too high a level of generality to amount to infringement of copyright”.

Tom Frederikse

Bulletins are for general guidance only. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters. Where reference is made to Court decisions facts referred to are those reported as found by the Court. Please note that past bulletins included in the Archive have not been updated by any subsequent changes in statute or case law.