My partner Helene Freeman has offered her reflections on these pages about the recent Supreme Court opinion in Star Athletica, L. L. C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., commonly known as the cheerleader uniform case. Our Fashion Practice held a seminar recently for the industry where Helene provided further thoughts based on her posts, and I provided some practical considerations based on the court’s ruling. Here is a brief summary.
The key point to remember is that the Supreme Court has greatly simplified how you look at cases of apparel and accessory copyrights and claimed infringement. Because the case involved fabric patterns, I will limit my discussion to them, but there are broader implications, from belt buckles to furniture. The bottom line is this: from now on, we will not examine the garment itself, just the surface design. It no longer matters that, if you take stripes, chevrons and other familiar cheerleader-uniform patterns off the uniform, all you have left is a tennis dress–that is, something with a different function from a cheerleader uniform. All we need do is look at the pattern on the fabric used to make the dress, as if it were unrolled from a bolt of cloth and laid flat. In fact, it does not even matter if a cutter snips pieces from the bolt into a recognizable shape of a dress. It’s the design of the fabric, and just that design, that matters from now on.
That possibly makes even more important the question that the Supreme Court sent back for consideration by the trial court: whether the design that was allegedly copied embodied enough original expression to warrant protection by copyright. The rule is that even modest creativity, when fixed in a creative work, is protectable by copyright. (All you haiku writers, take heart.) Using neckties from several makers and nations as an example, I showed our conference attendees that original variations to familiar patterns (such as bees and starbursts) could be protectable. Even if what results is a “thin” copyright, it is still enforceable.
That leads to a follow-on reflection: There being no central database of protected designs, and with fabric designs now being viewed as if standing alone, as some kind of sartorial Ding an sich (a “thing in itself” in Kantian philosophy), if you have a pattern that looks like it might be original, and if you intend to spend time and money using it to make clothing (or other products), now, more than ever, it is important that you seek copyright registration–and that you discuss your options with counsel. Because the cut of the cloth and claimed usefulness (as in, “Those look like the kind of stripes I would find on a cheerleader uniform.”) are now irrelevant for copyright purposes, you will have to undertake your analysis in a field of potential risk beyond that formed by the goods you are making. Using cheerleader uniforms as an example once more: stripes and chevrons on those uniforms, if upheld as protectable by copyright, could, in theory, be infringed upon not merely by designs on competing uniforms but also by fabric designs on anything that is nonfunctional (such as a purely decorative wall hanging) or functional (such as neckties, carpets and sofas).
That brings us again to our favorite money-saving advice: discuss these issues with knowledgeable counsel before you invest your time and money. In the law, that ounce of prevention is worth at least a ton of cure.
Credit: Alan Behr
It had to happen, and it did in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal. Late in February, Jacob Gallagher contributed an article persuasively advocating for a new appreciation of baggy pants. Even as The New York Times obsessively writes about President Trump (Not long after the inauguration, I counted twenty-six pieces revisited to him on The Times‘ home page.), here comes the more conservatively leaning Journal to bring us news we can use: the ins and outs of wearing slouchy trousers.
Menswear runs in somewhat erratic cycles, with lean and trim tailoring having been the look in (roughly speaking) the years following WWI and the 1960s and much of this century, with looser cuts, often led by trousers with pleats, having been in vogue in the decades in between. Risking a generalization, when youth dominates fashion and popular culture, slim is in. Consider The Beatles and all those earnest young and lesser bands of our present era. Giorgio Armani rose to fame when he helped end that earlier cycle with his looser cut suits that draped, rather than seemingly adhered to, Richard Gere in American Gigolo (1980). In his Journal story, Jacob Gallagher quoted Patrick Grant, the designer for E. Tautz (London): “A lot of people are just not built for skinny trousers, particularly those of us who have a few years under our belt.”
All well and true, except when it isn’t. As Mr. Gallagher just barely hinted, baggy is hard to pull off if you are what he politely termed “vertically challenged”—which is to say, you can all too easily end up looking like a bar mitzvah boy forced to wear one of his father’s suits. I am not short but not anywhere near tall and not in my first youth. Having slimmed down to my high school weight and buffed up in the gym, however, I slide into the trim, Italian-inspired Brooks Brothers Milano cut like a cartridge into a revolver breech. My London tailor, Henry Poole & Co., had to snip my pattern down to comply with the requirements of my new physique. I trimmed the trousers of the Henry Poole suits already in my wardrobe and have gone down two waist sizes, even as I only buy slim cuts in casual wear. A leading fashion stylist who had worked hard in the svelte-deprived ’90s to get me to puff out now says I look great while deflated back to slim. Who wants to upset that?
And so: a thank you to The Journal for letting me know that slouchy has again gone mainstream. This time, I am having none of it. As I said in these pages before, I realized late in life (as a Uniqlo customer), that I have the taste and build of a Japanese teenager. Every other guy can and, if it strikes him as correct, go baggier than Bozo. This fit but not so tall guy is sticking with the trim cut that suits him best.
As my partner Helene Freeman has blogged, we await word from the Supreme Court about what standard will be used to determine what designs on cheerleader uniforms are properly protectable by copyright. (Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc., et al.). That case could have wide implications for anyone whose after-school activities include jumping up and down in decorated tennis dresses in front of football bleachers—and potentially for many others as well. The debate on the cut of trousers, shirts and jackets will, happily, be unaffected. In the USA, despite sincere efforts to change the law, the pattern (outline) of a garment is unprotected as long as it is a functional element—which it nearly always is. Designers and their customers have free reign to go baggy or keep it lean, without interference by lawyers or judges. The question, I am happy to report, is one of taste, not of jurisprudence, at least under American law. Apply your own style sense or consult your own personal stylist, and best wishes with that.
Credit: Alan Behr
The fashion industry has debated the effect of the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc., interpreting the Copyright Act’s rules for registration of two and three dimensional designs incorporated into useful objects, on the availability of copyright protection for fashion designs and accessories. There now appears to be an emerging consensus of finding copyright protection in circumstances where it might not have been previously expected. This is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that the Court’s decision may be impacting a key question that the Court side-stepped.
While Star Athletica resolved that an otherwise copyrightable design that is a part of a useful object could be the subject of copyright so long as it could be conceived independently of the object in which it was incorporated, the Court pointedly refused to decide whether the cheerleading uniform surface patterns were copyrightable under the rules applicable to all two and three dimensional designs. Chief among those rules is the requirement of “originality”.
The breadth of the potential impact of Star Athletica is reflected in the recent decision of the Copyright Office to issue copyright registrations to adidas for the Kanye West Yeezy Boost 350 and Yeezy Boost 350 Version 2 sneakers. The application for registration as a two dimensional design and a three dimensional sculpture had originally been refused on the ground that it was a useful article. A request for reconsideration of the refusal was filed and registration was again refused on the ground that the “simple shapes arranged into common and expected pattern in very simple color schemes” did not meet the originality requirement.
But on a second request for reconsideration, the Copyright Office reversed itself, concluding that under the test of Star Athletica the two and three dimensional aspects of the designs could be “perceived” as separate from the sneaker, the useful object on which the designs appear.
It also decided that given the very low standard for copyrightability, the designs’ lines, stripes and swirls, although individually not copyrightable, had been combined in a sufficiently distinctive manner so that the designs, when viewed as a whole, merited registration. The copyrightable combinations, as described by the Copyright Office, consisted of “irregular black lines of various lengths and shapes on a grey fabric with a black semi-circle in the arch and an orange dotted stripe on an off-white heel loop” in the case of version 1 and “several grey lines in a wave pattern with a thick orange stripe on the outsole that fades toward the heel” with an inner orange layer that adds “intermittent orange coloring” in the case of version 2.
In light of the Copyright Office’s decision to register the Yeezy 350 sneaker patterns, at least in their contrasting color ways, fashion brands should now consider seeking copyright registration for their important designs containing any variation beyond the most basic, unvaried stripes.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman
Read other blog posts related to Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. here.
When one speaks about trademarks, the familiar adage “use it or lose it” comes to mind. But there is another important principal that can equally endanger your trademark rights: You must police the market, monitor the trademark register and take action to stop infringements, or you may find yourself without a trademark to enforce. Two recent cases demonstrate the importance of this latter principle.
LUSH is the trademark for a global brand of “hand made” cosmetic, fragrance and bath products sold by Cosmetic Warriors Limited (“CWL”), a company founded in England in the mid-1990’s. CWL opened its first Canadian retail store in 1996 and expanded to the United States in 2002. It now operates in excess of 940 stores in 49 countries, including 250 stores in North America, 200 of which are located in the United States. In 2002, it registered the LUSH trademark for use on t-shirts in Canada, but never filed a US registration for apparel. Pinkette Clothing Co. is a California company that, since 2003, has sold women’s clothing under the LUSH mark to retailers in the US and Canada, principally Nordstrom. Pinkette secured a US registration for the LUSH trademark for apparel in 2010. CWL did not oppose the issuance of registration for the mark, although its outside counsel apparently was notified through a trademark watch service of the application’s publication for opposition. In December 2014, CWL applied to register the trademark LUSH in the United States for clothing. When its application was rejected due to Pinkette’s pre-existing registration, it filed an application to cancel Pinkette’s mark. Instead of defending in the cancellation proceeding before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, Pinkette commenced a court action seeking a declaration that it did not infringe CWL’s trademark or, alternatively, that CWL’s failure to oppose Pinkette’s application in 2010 and its subsequent delay in seeking to cancel Pinkette’s registration barred CWL from enforcing its trademark rights against Pinkette. CWL counterclaimed for trademark infringement and to cancel Pinkette’s LUSH trademark registration. After trial, a jury found that Pinkette had infringed CWL’s LUSH trademark and that Pinkette’s registration should be canceled, but it also found that CWL had unreasonably delayed in asserting its claims. The court held that the delay barred CWL’s action and dismissed its claims. On appeal by CWL from the dismissal of its claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that CWL should have known of Pinkette’s usage as early as 2010, when Pinkette’s application for registration was published for opposition, that CWL had not been diligent in asserting its rights, and that Pinkette had been harmed by the delay because, in the interim, it had expended time and resources to develop its LUSH business. As a matter of equity, therefore, CWL would not be permitted to assert its claim either for trademark infringement or for cancellation of the Pinkette mark.
The second case demonstrates what can happen when many uses of a trademark for competitive goods are tolerated by the trademark owner for an extended period. The essential function of a trademark is to identify the source of the goods to which it is applied. Trade dress in the form of the design of a product or its packaging can also serve to identify a source and can serve as a trademark when it does. But if the design does not have a source-identifying function, referred to as “secondary meaning,” the design is not registrable for trade dress protection. When other third parties are permitted to use the design in the market for similar goods, the design cannot achieve the required secondary meaning.
Converse learned that lesson the hard way. In 2013, Converse registered a trademark for the “midsole” design of its Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers, consisting of the toe cap, textured toe bumper and two thin stripes along the side of the sole of the shoe. It claimed common-law trademark rights in the design based upon decades of its use prior to securing its registration. It subsequently filed a complaint with the International Trade Commission against Walmart, Skechers, Highline and New Balance seeking to bar the importation of sneakers it claimed infringed its registered midsole trademark and its common law trademark rights in the design. The International Trade Commission found that there was a likelihood of confusion between the Converse sneakers and the competitors’ sneakers. But the Commission also found that there had been a proliferation of competitors using the same design, on the same goods, sold to the same class of consumers over many years. As a result, the Commission concluded that the design could not be said to identify Converse as the source of the goods and, therefore, its trademark registration was invalid.
The lesson of these cases is clear. Adopting and registering a trademark is only the beginning of your work. To preserve and protect the trademark, you must police the market and assert your rights on a timely basis when you discover infringement by others. If you fail to do so, you may find that your investment in the trademark has been lost.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman
If you were hoping that following the Supreme Court’s decision in Star Athletica you might learn whether common stripes, chevrons, color blocks and zig zags are sufficiently original to be copyrightable—a question expressly reserved by the Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit– you will be disappointed. On August 10, 2017, the district court permitted Varsity Brands to voluntarily dismiss its copyright infringement action against Star Athletica with prejudice, over the objection of Star Athletica, which wished to pursue its counter-claims seeking to invalidate the Varsity Brands copyrights.
You might well ask, as we did, why after seven years of largely successful litigation, Varsity Brands would be permitted to walk away. Or you might ask, as we also did, why Star Athletica would object to having the suit end with no apparent injunctive or other relief awarded against it. Both are fair questions and the answer to each is unusual: The insurance company that was defending Star Athletica reached a settlement agreement with Varsity Brands, without the participation or approval of Star Athletica. The terms of the settlement are confidential. The only clue is the court’s reservation to Varsity Brands of the right to return to court if it does not receive the payment from the insurer required by the settlement. As far as Varsity Brands is concerned, not only does it get money, but it also avoids the potential for invalidation of its copyrights, having made its point that the two dimensional designs reflected in its uniforms are separable from their utilitarian features and theoretically capable of copyright protection. It now has a stronger threat to hurl at potential competitors.
But what of Star Athletica and its interest in settling its rights to compete with Varsity Brands in the cheerleading uniform market? In the view of the court, Star Athletica receives what is in effect immunity from future claims of copyright infringement related to the copyrights and uniforms at issue in the action. And also in the court’s view, Star Athletica’s counter-claims to invalidate the copyrights were only defenses to the copyright infringement claims and not independent bases for legal action once the threat of copyright liability was removed. And that is the rub: Varsity Brands has many other copyright registrations for which similar challenges to their validity might (or might not) have merit. Because the court did not provide guidance on that fundamental point, competing uniform makers remain exposed to similar infringement claims.
One can’t help feeling that the broader fashion public had an interest in the resolution of the question of whether stripes and chevrons are original when applied to garments. But it is an axiom of federal court litigation that the courts do not decide hypothetical cases or controversies for the edification of the public.
For now, if you are interested in whether stripes can be protected in fashion, you will have to focus on trademarks and not copyrights. There is always Gucci’s suit against Forever 21 for knocking off what it claims is its stripes trademark. And then, too, there is Adidas’ pending suit against Skechers for knocking off its three stripe trademark. The district court in Oregon just decided that Adidas’ trademark infringement suit can proceed.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman