On March 22, the Supreme Court found that Varsity Brands’ cheerleader uniform designs –arrangements of colors, shapes, stripes and chevrons, shown below – may be subject to copyright protection. Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., 580 U.S. __ (2017), https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-866_0971.pdf.
Varsity Brands, the leading producer of cheerleader uniforms, brought suit for copyright infringement based on a competitor’s sale of similar uniforms. In order to prevail, Varsity Brands had to prove that it owned valid copyrights in its designs.
Copyright protects “works of authorship” including “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.” 17 U.S.C. § 102(a)(5). It typically does not protect useful articles. However, the design of a useful article may be protected to the extent that “such design incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” 17 U.S.C. § 101.
In yesterday’s decision, the Supreme Court clarified the “separability” analysis. It held that a feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright if 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 on its own or when fixed in some other medium. Under this test, Varsity Brands’ designs were sufficiently separable to permit copyright protection.
Courts previously have struggled with the “separability” analysis, leading to different tests throughout the country. The Supreme Court yesterday rejected the notion of “physical” separability adopted by some courts and commentators. The statutory text of the Copyright Act, the Court explained, indicates that “separability is a conceptual undertaking.”
The Copyright Act does not expressly protect fashion designs, but yesterday’s decision will make it easier for designers to protect and enforce their creative works.
These materials have been prepared by Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP for general informational purposes only.
They are not legal advice. They are not intended to create, and their receipt by you does not create, an attorney-client relationship.