- Supreme Court Cheers for Copyrights in Cheerleading Uniforms
- May 24, 2017 | Author: Timothy J. Lockhart
- Law Firm: Willcox & Savage, P.C. - Norfolk Office
In a decision with broad implications for the fashion industry and other industries that combine art with useful articles, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that artistic features of cheerleading uniforms can be copyrighted even if incorporated into the utilitarian designs for such uniforms. Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., --- U.S. ---, 137 S. Ct. 1002 (2017). Applying separability analysis, the court held that such features are eligible for copyright protection but only if they (1) can be perceived as two- or three-dimensional works of art separate from the useful article and (2) would qualify as protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works if imagined separately from the useful article.
Varsity Brands manufactures apparel, including cheerleading uniforms, and has acquired more than 200 U.S. copyright registrations for two-dimensional decorations that appear on the surface of such uniforms and other garments. The decorations are primarily combinations and arrangements of elements such as chevrons, lines, curves, stripes, angles, diagonals, coloring, and shapes. After Star Athletica advertised cheerleading uniforms displaying similar decorations, Varsity Brands sued for copyright infringement. The district court found for Star Athletica, ruling that Varsity Brands’ decorations did not qualify as protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works under U.S. copyright law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari “to resolve widespread disagreement over the proper test for implementing §101’s separate-identification and independent-existence requirements.”
Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined and Justice Ginsburg concurred. Justice Beyer filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Kennedy joined. The court’s opinion relies largely on the language of the 1976 Copyright Act, which provides in Section 101 (17 U.S.C. §101) that a “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural featur[e]” incorporated into the “design of a useful article” is eligible for copyright protection if it (1) “can be identified separately from,” and (2) is “capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.”
The court said that although the first requirement is not onerous and was readily met in this case, “[t]he independent-existence requirement is ordinarily more difficult to satisfy.” The test is whether the feature can “exist as its own pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work as defined in §101 once it is imagined apart from the useful article”-with the caveat that the feature cannot be a useful article or an article that is normally part of a useful article. Stating that this interpretation is consistent with the history of the Copyright Act, the court cited Mazer v. Stein, 347 U.S. 201 (1954), a case decided under the 1909 Copyright Act and involving a copyrightable statuette of a dancer that could be used as a lamp base.
The court held that Varsity Brands’ designs also met the independent-existence test. First, the court said, “one can identify the decorations as features having pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities.” Second, “if the arrangement of colors, shapes, stripes, and chevrons on the surface of the cheerleading uniforms were separated from the uniform and applied in another medium-for example, on a painter’s canvas-they would qualify as “two-dimensional . . . works of . . . art” (citing 17 U.S.C. §101). And, the court added, “imaginatively removing the surface decorations from the uniforms and applying them in another medium would not replicate the uniform itself.”
The court was careful to note that its opinion did not give any copyright protection to cheerleading uniforms themselves, only to artistic designs such as those at issue in this case. Thus, the court said, Varsity Brands has “no right to prohibit any person from manufacturing a cheerleading uniform of identical shape, cut, and dimensions to the ones on which the decorations in this case appear. [Varsity Brands] may prohibit only the reproduction of the surface designs in any tangible medium of expression-a uniform or otherwise.”
Justice Ginsburg wrote a short concurrence in which she said that although she agreed with the court’s judgment, she did not believe that application of the separability test was required in this case. “Consideration of that test is unwarranted,” she wrote, “because the designs at issue are not designs of useful articles. Instead, the designs are themselves copyrightable pictorial or graphic works reproduced on useful articles.”
In his dissent Justice Breyer claimed that Varsity Brands’ decorations cannot be perceived as two- or three-dimensional works of art separate from useful articles. He said that in Varsity Brands’ copyright applications one sees “only pictures of cheerleader uniforms,” which are obviously useful articles. “A picture of the relevant design features, whether separately ‘perceived’ on paper or in the imagination, is a picture of, and thereby [replicates] the underlying useful article of which [the features] are a part.” Therefore, Justice Breyer said, “the design features that Varsity [Brands] seeks to protect are not ‘capable of existing independently o[f] the utilitarian aspects of the article’” (citing 17 U.S.C. §101).
The fashion industry has been quick to note this decision and its implications for the future. For example, in an online article published the day after the court released its opinion, Vogue magazine said that “to those inside the fashion world, this was a landmark that has potential to resonate in the industry for years to come” (http://www.vogue.com/article/supreme-court-star-athletica-varsity-brands-ruling-fashion-industry). The article added that although “this ruling isn’t a blanket statement protecting all designers from knockoffs and copying,” it does open the door “for making the case that certain parts of design can be protected by copyright.” That’s important, the article observed, “especially considering that Congress has discussed expanding copyright protections for fashion designers but has not yet made [such protections] into law.” (sample Varsity Brands copyright registrations appear below)