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
The Supreme Court decision in Star Athletica L. L. C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., No. 15-866 was announced today and the fashion industry can breathe a huge sigh of relief. In fact, the industry, especially accessory businesses, would be justified in popping open the Champagne. Not only did the Court uphold the Sixth Circuit’s judgment that the designs of the cheerleading uniforms were separable, it greatly simplified and expanded the two- and three-dimensional features of useful articles that can qualify for copyright protection.
The opinion holds that the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection if the feature can be perceived as a copyrightable two or three-dimensional pictorial, graphic or sculptural design separate from the useful article, on its own or in some other tangible medium, if it can be “imagined” separately from the useful article. Physical separability is not required. The analysis of separability under the statute is a purely conceptual undertaking. Conceptual separability does not require that the remaining part of the useful article, apart from the two and three dimensional design, be either fully functional or even equally useful. The focus of the separability analysis under the copyright statute is on the extracted two- and three-dimensional design and, according to the Court, one need not “imagine a fully functioning useful article without the artistic features.” Nor does it matter, the Court holds, that the artistic feature plays a role in the function of the useful article.
All of the other glosses on conceptual separability that the various appeals courts had previously articulated are swept away. It does not matter that the artistic feature of the design would be marketable separately, so long as it can be imagined as existing. It doesn’t matter that it was conceived originally for the useful purpose to which it was put.
Left for another day is whether the specific designs at issue are copyrightable. That will be the task of the trial court on remand. However, Justice Ginsberg notes in a footnote that the requisite creativity for copyright is extremely low.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman
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
Registering copyrightable designs as “unpublished” collections can be an efficient and cost effective way to register multiple two dimensional print patterns in a single registration. But to derive the benefits of registration, you need to be able to identify the designs included. Standard Fabrics International, Inc. (“Standard Fabrics”) learned that lesson the hard way, when it sued Louise Paris, Ltd. and its retail customer for copyright infringement of one of the fabric designs it claimed was part of its “Spring Summer, Collection 1”.
To succeed in a suit for copyright infringement, you must prove that the design in issue was registered with the Copyright Office. To register, you must submit a copy of the design with an application for registration.
Standard Fabrics’ registration identified its work only as “Spring Summer, Collection 1”. Nothing in the title referred specifically to the particular design number that was the subject of the suit. Therefore, Standard Fabrics was required to prove that the design was actually included in the collection registered. Because Standard Fabrics could not prove the design infringed was part of the collection registered, it was denied judgment on its infringement claim.
The problem Standard Fabrics faced can be avoided. In an application to register a collection of designs, be sure to set forth the design number for each design covered by the application. Each individual design in the collection can be uploaded separately on the Copyright Office’s electronic website and appropriate records of the upload can be printed and maintained.
The Copyright Office generally maintains deposit copies of unpublished works. It will provide copies of these for use by the lawyers for parties to litigation, but it requires a written application in its proscribed form and time to search for, reproduce and certify its records. The fee charged for this service can be hundreds of dollars, as the Copyright Office will charge for its time as well as imposing copying and certification fees.
But beware, the Copyright Office does not undertake to retain deposit copies of published works. Full term retention must be arranged for a fee.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman
It is an oft repeated truth that copyright exists automatically from the moment a work is fixed in tangible form and that no formalities are required to preserve the copyright. In the United States, registration with the Copyright Office is only necessary to sue for infringement, but it is not uncommon for owners to defer registration until litigation is contemplated. The recent decision in Solid Oak Sketches v. 2K Games, Inc. is a healthy reminder that the timing of the registration can significantly affect the remedies available to the copyright owner in a suit for infringement and that a delay in registration can be costly.
The remedies for copyright infringement include recovery of actual damages and the profits of the infringer, as well as an injunction of continued infringement in appropriate cases. But the law also permits recovery of “statutory damages”, in lieu of proving actual damages or profits. Attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, deposition costs and similar litigation expenses can be recovered by the prevailing party. Given the potential cost of prosecuting a copyright infringement action and proving damages, the plaintiff’s ability to recover its attorney’s fees and litigation expenses, as well as statutory damages, can be important factors in the calculus of the value of the litigation for both the plaintiff and the defendant.
However, the law permits recovery of attorney’s fees and statutory damages from a defendant only if the copyright was registered with the copyright office before the infringement “commenced”.
The plaintiff in Solid Oak was the copyright owner of the artwork for eight designs, tattooed on five different National Basketball Association (NBA) players. (If you did not realize tattoo art is copyrightable, you didn’t read my colleague, Alan Behr’s, recent post.) The defendants created and sold realistic basketball simulation video games, using animated versions of the NBA players as they appeared in real life, complete with their tattoos. The first video game in the series was introduced in 2013 and new versions appeared in 2014 and 2015. The plaintiff registered its tattoo designs in 2015, after the initial versions of the game appeared, but prior to the release of the 2016 game in the series. Unable to convince the defendant to take a license for the tattoo artwork appearing on the players depicted in the game, Solid Oak brought suit for copyright infringement.
The court held that Solid Oak was not entitled to recover attorney’s fees and statutory damages, even with respect to the 2016 version of the game which was released after registration of the copyright, because the infringement had commenced before the registration of the tattoo art in 2015. According to the court, when the first act of infringement in a series of on-going infringements precedes registration, these special remedies are not available, even if the versions released after registration differed from the prior versions.
In the fashion industry, where knock-offs can appear in the market within months of the introduction of an original design, it can be advisable to register print, lace and jewelry designs as “unpublished works” before they reach the market. The fee for registration is only $35 and it can be done on-line without a large investment of time. The benefits, which also include a presumption that the two or three dimension design is an original, copyrightable work, owned by the registrant, are well worth the money and effort.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman
I vaguely recall, from long repressed memory, the time when only sailors and thugs had themselves tattooed. But anyone caught in a crowd, especially on a summer’s day, when long-cloaked skin comes into the fore, can clearly see that having oneself inked has become quite the fashion. Apparently, late in the last century, the movement was begun by, or was at least energized by, Los Angeles celebrities who risked going to less than savory places to have butterflies, arrow-pierced hearts and other traditional artifacts poked into them with commanding permanence. The fad grew quickly to become an international trend. I remember sitting down for dinner at a restaurant in a small Bavarian town in the year 2000 and wondering, as the waitress arrived in a fetching spread-eagle bodice, how far down the tattoo on her left breast extended. The answer, we now know, is that it went as far below the line as nature gave room for its descent. When something becomes as obviously popular as tattooing, it tells us that it is time, of course, to consider the legal implications.
Covering an entire arm with words, phrases and graphic-novel style illustrations (known in the trade as “doing a sleeve”) is now not uncommon. There remain limits. The military has the right to refuse potential enlistees who arrive with what is deemed excessive or “grossly offensive” tattooing. There appears to be no legal impediment to the military in making those distinctions, but we can anticipate that someone may, at some point, raise a First Amendment objection. There has already been a federal appeals court decision striking down a municipality’s ban on tattoo parlors as a violation of the First Amendment.¹
Copyright law presents a more interesting problem: In the absence of a contract stating otherwise, the owner of the copyright in the artwork worn by the tattooed person is the artist. That is, if you go to a tattoo parlor and have it do a sleeve filled with flying dragons, flying skulls and terrestrial motifs, the owner of the copyright in the art you are wearing is not you but the person with the tattoo gun who pummeled it into you—unless (a) the artist is an employee of the salon or (b) the artist and the salon have entered into an assignment of rights contract, in which case the salon is the owner of the art on your arm. The lawful owner can register the art with the Copyright Office and sue to protect its rights against infringers, most notably including copycat rival tattoo artists.
If your artist has tattooed onto your arm something to which the copyright is owned by another—say Mickey Mouse or the Batmobile—you, as the bearer of the arm, could theoretically be caught in the middle of a legal fight with the copyright owner. In copyright cases, impoundment and destruction are possible remedies, but we likely will not see the day when the wearer of a tattoo would be required to visit a local tattoo-removal center to resolve copyright litigation. What could happen in theory in copyright matters is, fortunately, often removed from what typically does occur.
What is the takeaway from all this? Your arm is lovely the way it arrived along with you. Strictly as a question of taste, perhaps it is better just to let that be enough for you.
¹ Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach, 621, F.3d 1051 (9th Cir. 2010)
Credit: Alan Behr