On March 22, 2017, the Supreme Court held in Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands that design elements of cheerleading uniforms may be protected under the Copyright Act. The 6-2 decision, written by Justice Thomas, clarified the scope of protection afforded to clothing designs and, more broadly, designs on useful articles.
Varsity Brands, Inc.—the country’s largest cheerleading supplier—owns more than 200 copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs consisting of combinations of chevrons, stripes, and other colorful shapes for its cheerleading uniforms. At issue in this case were the five pictured designs.
Varsity Brands sued Star Athletica, LLC, an upstart competitor, for copyright infringement. The District Court for the Western District of Tennessee granted Star Athletica’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the designs could not be conceptually or physically separated from the uniforms, and they were therefore ineligible for copyright protection. The Copyright Act makes “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” of the “design of a useful article” eligible for copyright protection as artistic works only if those features “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” The Sixth Circuit reversed, concluding that the graphics were “separately identifiable” and “capable of existing independently” of the uniforms.
In affirming, the Supreme Court laid out a two-part test for when a feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection: When the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article; and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated. “To be clear, the only feature of the cheerleading uniform eligible for a copyright in this case is the two-dimensional work of art,” the Court explained. “Respondents have 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.” Continue Reading Supreme Court Rules Cheerleading Uniform Designs Are Copyrightable