Copyright, Trademark and Patent in Fireworks

The Fourth of July is the holiday the United States celebrates its independence. While the holiday is associated with many things, nothing is more connected with it than fireworks.

However, though fireworks are heavily associated with the United States, they are not unique to the country. Fireworks can be traced back over 2,000 years to Liuyang, China, where most fireworks are still made today.

As such, fireworks predate copyright and other intellectual property law by well over a thousand years. However, that doesn’t mean that fireworks have escaped intellectual property issues.

This has become especially true in modern times, where fireworks displays are often multimedia events.

While these issues aren’t likely to impact your backyard BBQ or amateur display, professionals must consider them. As such, it’s worth seeing how copyright and intellectual property have impacted fireworks over the years.

Copyright and Fireworks Displays

To answer the critical question: There is no way to protect a fireworks display under copyright.

Simply put, in the United States, copyright law only applies to works “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Since fireworks displays are, by nature, ethereal, there’s no way to protect the display itself.

Similarly, there’s no way (with copyright) to protect a firework pattern. Their temporary nature makes this impossible.

However, there are other copyright issues to consider.

First, many fireworks displays are accompanied by music. Since nearly all modern music is protected by copyright, this has to be considered. This is especially important if the fireworks display is part of a business operation.

In short, fireworks professionals must ensure they have composition and synchronization licenses. Even though lawsuits over such displays appear to be rare, they are at least possible.

Second, copyright protects videos and photos. This includes videos and pictures of a fireworks display. However, the copyright holder is the photographer or videographer, not the person or company that created the display.

As such, if companies want to share videos of their displays, they must either capture their own footage or license it from someone else. As we have repeatedly seen on Instagram, the subject of a photograph does not necessarily have the right to it.

Finally, most large fireworks displays are choreographed using software such as Finale3D and FWsim. Copyright protects not just the software itself but also any saved files the user creates with it.

So, while copyright doesn’t protect the display itself, it can protect the file used to program it. As such, you are free to mimic a display, but using the file without permission could be an infringement.

However, that appears to be, at most, a rare issue.

Trademark and Patents

Though fireworks enjoy limited copyright protection, they have a great deal of patent protection.

Inventors have filed and received patents on nearly every part of the fireworks process. This includes systems for launching fireworks, patterns for shells and safety mechanisms, to name a few.

However, patents tend to be less of an issue for consumers, including professional pyrotechnicians. Instead, the issue is more for manufacturers and retailers.

In a similar vein, trademarks also protect companies and their products. TNT Fireworks and Black Cat are well-known names in the United States with trademark filings. However, a quick search of the US Patent & Trademark Office finds over 10,000 current trademarks in the fireworks category.

Once again, this more directly impacts retailers and manufacturers. Trademark prevents them from using similar or confusing names or packaging.

In short, fireworks companies have the same benefits from patents and trademarks that other companies share. However, they aren’t likely to impact consumers or viewers, even fireworks professionals.

In this regard, the fireworks industry is remarkably similar to other industries, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

Bottom Line

One thing that I found interesting about the fireworks industry as I worked on this article was how much of it relies not on copyright, patent or trademark but simple secrecy.

A good example is the Nishiki Kamuro shell. This firework is famous for its golden drip effect. However, only one company in the world makes them. Though some have attempted to replicate it with mixed results, the original shells are still considered to be the best.

It’s a traditional protection method for an industry deeply steeped in tradition.

What keeps one company from replicating another’s effort primarily comes down to expertise and knowledge. Since a fireworks display only has one shot to do it right, there’s intense pressure to be the best and most reliable in the space.

This pressure applies to manufacturers, retailers and professional pyrotechnicians. A reputation for sloppy work or poor-quality products will end your business faster than any copyright or trademark lawsuit.

Still, it’s crucial for all involved to be aware of the intellectual property issues the industry faces. Otherwise, all of that good work could go up in smoke.

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