The Curious Case of the Cheerleader Uniforms

Cheerleader-with single focus

One of the hot topics du jour in the fashion press is the copyright battle in the Supreme Court involving cheerleader uniforms. It poses the question of when a two-dimensional design that is part of a useful article is copyrightable—in this case, designs consisting of color blocks, chevrons, and lines in uniforms for cheerleaders. The Copyright Act provides that a “useful article” is not copyrightable, but it allows for copyright in the “pictorial, graphic and sculptural” features of useful objects as long as those features are “separable” from and can exist independently of the object itself.

Under the statutory definition, you can secure a copyright for a fabric or lace design, but you cannot secure a copyright in a dress made with the fabric or lace. An artist who draws a dress can secure a copyright in the drawing and can prevent someone from using it on greeting cards or wastebaskets, but the artist cannot use the copyright to prevent anyone from actually making the dress depicted in the drawing.

Although the concept of separability is easy to state in the abstract, at times it has been hard to apply in practice. Cheerleader uniforms present a particularly difficult problem. The designs here are not printed on the fabrics used in the uniforms. They are part of the garment’s construction. The placement of the design features—color piping around the neckline and arm holes, lines down the sides in color blocks, chevrons in the center, lines marking the boundaries between blocks of color—results from the contours of the garments. The placement also serves the functional purposes of hiding seams that are sewn on the outside (instead of the inside) of the garments to prevent chafing, strengthening parts of the garments so that they hold their shape, and creating optical illusions that lengthen the torso and slim the waist. The designs also help make the garments recognizable as uniforms and not street clothing.

The challenger, Star Athletica, focuses on those functional considerations and argues that the designs are inherent in the useful objects and do not exist independently. It argues that, if the designs have any function, they are not separable from the uniforms.

The United States and Varsity Brands, the copyright owner, argue that, because the graphic designs can be applied to products other than dresses, they are separable, can exist independently and are therefore copyrightable. The government further argues that the Copyright Office cannot be in the business of determining how any particular two-dimensional design functions in any given context when called upon to determine whether it can indeed exist independently. Under that argument, any two-dimensional design could potentially be deemed independent and separable from the three-dimensional objects to which it is applied.

In a great irony, the case was argued before the Supreme Court on Halloween. Halloween costumes frequently have been the subject of litigation under the particular provisions of the Copyright Act at issue in the case. (In case you are wondering, under current precedent, costumes are generally not copyrightable, but masks generally are.)

Reading the oral argument before the Supreme Court and the briefs, I was struck by the fact that the case is not unlike the famous figure ground optical illusion in which you can simultaneously see either a goblet or the profile of two faces. Star Athletica sees the goblet. If the lines define the goblet, it is the design of a useful object, and Varsity Brands cannot prevent Star from making the goblet. But Varsity Brands and the government see the profile pictures, which are separable, and it would be irrelevant whether they also define a goblet from the perspective of another viewer.

Stanford Law School Professor Mark Lemley, as the lead author of a brief submitted by a number of law professors in support of Star Athletica, attempts to separate the figure from the ground. He argues that copyright could protect the designs, but not the coordination and arrangement (i.e. placement) of the elements of the designs that result from the shape or construction of the garments. In effect, this proposed test would exclude from the protection of copyright those elements of the designs dictated by the needs of making the useful article truly useful.

There are other relevant questions that none of the lower courts in the case considered and which none of the briefs submitted to the Supreme Court addressed: What are the two-dimensional designs that are protected and are those designs copyrightable under more general principles of copyright law? Are they original or are they in the public domain? Is there a merger of the general idea with its expression so that there is nothing that is copyrightable? Are the decorative aspects what copyright law refers to as “scènes à faire” (stock representations implicit in the subject matter, in this case cheerleader uniforms)? Both the trial court and the appellate court expressly said they were not addressing whether the two-dimensional designs were copyrightable and were reserving that question. And the Supreme Court, in accepting the case, refused to consider this question, because it was not ruled on below.

Justice Elena Kagan inquired at argument: What is your design; can someone just add another stripe to avoid infringement? Varsity Brands’ counsel did not address the first part of the question and, in response to the second part, said that merely adding something to a copyrightable design “usually” does not avoid infringement. The response did little to address the Court’s expressed concern for the anti-competitive effect on the market for cheerleader uniforms and markets for other products for which the design has a functional purpose, such as camouflage fabric for military use. Indeed, it is worth noting that Star Athletica made a point of informing the Court that Varsity Brands controls 80% of the U.S. market for cheerleader uniforms.

That may help explain why all of the Supreme Court Justices who asked questions were troubled by the idea of handing Varsity Brands a monopoly over cheerleader uniform designs through the use of its copyright registrations. How they might avoid that result is an open question. Star Athletica offered one alternative that might have a major impact on the fashion industry, particularly on the accessories market, where protection of three-dimensional designs is an on-going concern: Any aspect of the design that is functional in part is not conceptually separable. (Say goodbye to the Kieselstein-Cord belt buckle decision, a ground-breaking case won by this firm and which a number of briefs argued was wrongly decided.) Another alternative, endorsed by the American Intellectual Property Association, is to vacate the decision and instruct the court below to determine first the validity of the copyright in the designs under more general copyright law concepts that would factor into the analysis the use of routine design features in uniforms. Either way, one suspects that Star Athletica’s use of its copyrights to prevent competition in the cheerleader uniform market may be short lived.

Credit: Helene M. Freeman

Here’s a previous post that may be of interest…

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