Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a watershed decision in Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands, holding that the decorative features on cheerleading uniforms are protected by federal copyright law. The issue before the court was what was the appropriate test to determine whether a feature of a useful article, such as an article of clothing, is protected under the 1976 Copyright Act’s Section 101. The Court set out to resolve a widespread disagreement as to what testing standard is most appropriate.
Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion. He wrote that an artistic feature of a uniform’s design can be copyrighted if it can be perceived as a two or three-dimensional work of art that stands separate from the uniform itself. The analysis applies equally to all “useful articles.” In addition, the feature must qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or in some other medium if imagined separately from the uniform.
Varsity Brands manufactures cheerleading uniforms and athletic apparel. Varsity has more than 200 copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs consisting of various patterns, chevrons, and shapes. Designers create concepts that consist of original combinations, positionings, and arrangements of elements and do not consider functionality or the ease of actually producing uniforms. Varsity sued Star Athletica, who also markets cheerleading uniforms, after they allegedly copied two-dimensional art designs that Varsity had copyrighted. The Court held that the uniforms at issue met the requirements set forth by the newly devised test.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer dissented, finding that Star Athletica’s designs looked like generic pictures of cheerleader uniforms. He compared the situation to a pair of old shoes in a Van Gogh painting—stating that it would not qualify as a shoe design copyright, though the painting itself would be copyrightable.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred with the majority’s judgment, but not its opinion. She said that designs are not designs of useful articles, but rather are themselves copyrightable graphic works reproduced on useful articles. She found that the designs were standalone works of sculptural art that were covered by Section 101 of the 1976 Copyright Act.
Philadelphia Business Lawyers at Sidkoff, Pincus & Green P.C. Handle All Types of Trademark Litigation
If you are seeking representation in any type of business, copyright, or trademark matter, the Philadelphia trademark litigation lawyers at Sidkoff, Pincus & Green P.C. are available to answer your questions. To schedule a consultation with us, call us at 215-574-0600 or contact us online today.