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Cases Federal & State Laws Intellectual Property Textiles

The Curious Case of the Cheerleader Uniforms

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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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Accessories Childrenswear Footwear Intellectual Property Menswear Textiles Womenswear

Keeping Control Over Your Brand

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In the movie A Hard Day’s Night (1964), unscrupulous menswear marketers lure George Harrison into their office, there to assure him that the two new shirts they put into his hands are essential to his self-esteem. When George says the goods are frightful, the head marketer comforts his team that, “within a month, he will be suffering a violent inferiority complex and loss of status because he isn’t wearing one of these ‘nasty’ things.”

The point was that the guiding spirits of the generation of the 1960s formed up against the commercialism and consumerism that were behind marketers’ attempts to pass off “nasty” goods as status symbols for insecure youth. How times have changed. Someone with a device in his pocket that pitches out brands and branding stories faster than summer rain drenches a field views branding and the commercial motives behind it in a much more positive light. Brands ignite consumer interest as never before, and brands win when they have good stories to tell—stories that create interest and become viral once consumers are engaged. Brands are, after all, nothing but good will with consumers, and once that is obtained, the message is spread most effectively by consumers imitating each other and aspiring to what each other has. The bad news that follows from the good is that consumers, in exchanging with each other messages about brands they know, are becoming as important in the control of a brand’s destiny as the brand’s owner—and its marketers.

For that reason, never has the creation and the protection of strong trademarks been more important for the fashion business. The value of the trademarks is applied directly to the bottom line in the form of good will. There are terrific fashion brands that own little else but their trademarks and related domain names—not the factories that make the clothes, not the stores in which they are sold, not even the photocopy machines in the corporate office. What they have are strong trademarks protected throughout the areas of current use and expected operations. The moral of the story: work with your trademark lawyer to develop, as early as possible, a solid and workable trademark protection program, and then stick to it by carefully searching and analyzing all new prospective trademarks and by registering them promptly as soon as the anticipated need arises. What have you to lose by not doing that? Only everything you may have.

Credit:  Alan Behr

Categories
Accessories Childrenswear Footwear Intellectual Property Menswear Textiles

Do More But Restrain Yourself Too

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Luxury, being the thematic opposite of necessity, must be at least as much about what you desire as what you need. Building a brand to fill that role requires both diligence and self-restraint.

A luxury brand and its products should be readily identifiable as superior to both existing and aspirational customers. That is not to say that that non-luxury brands and their products do not require legal protection; we are simply recognizing that the luxury premium adds a new class to the market—those aspirational customers—whose perceptions and desires are vital to the future of brands in the luxury sector. For that reason, and many others, it is particularly important for luxury brands to work with counsel to identify and protect all the important proprietary elements that are capable of being protected. That includes protection, where appropriate, by trademark (and trade dress) registration, design patent registration, and—something rather unique to the United States—copyright registration.

With few exceptions, it is generally better to err on the side of more rather than less when it comes to registrations. Styles and style names that will only be in the catalog for a season or two are usually not worth the trouble, but anything of medium to long-term consequence to the bottom line and brand value almost certainly is. In these posts, we will go into more detail about various forms of legal protection, but a key guideline is this: once each season, have a look at what engages the public with your brand and your products and how that engagement might lead you to adjust your legal protection program. There is probably no more important work that marketers and counsel can undertake together in order to make your protection program both thorough and cost-effective.

This year, the International Trademark Association held its annual meeting in Hong Kong, giving the world’s intellectual property lawyers the opportunity to congregate in an important commercial city where branding is all. Once a playground for bargain hunters for, consumer electronics and rapidly cut and stitched men’s suits, Hong Kong has become a destination for consumers of luxury goods. Indeed, I cannot remember seeing another city in which almost any international luxury brand I can think of had more than one boutique. What was particularly interesting this time is that, for various reasons, visitors from the mainland were uncommonly absent, with the result that, in every store in which I had a look, the sales floors were empty of patrons. That may be a temporary problem, but it raises a bigger question: as surely as luxury is about something greater than necessity, it is also about relative inaccessibility; it is an experience over and above the ordinary that is made all the more desirable by its very lack of ubiquity. When luxury is everywhere, can it start to look commonplace? The risk is that new entrants will have a chance to succeed (in no small part due to their newness and limited production) in poaching customers sated by what has become too familiar. That may be healthy for the marketplace but not for you if you have a valuable brand.

There are no perfect formulas, of course, but here is a general reflection that might well apply when protecting a luxury brand and its products: under law, more is better; when preserving the reputation of a luxury brand and its products in a business sense, less may sometimes indeed be more.

Credit: Alan Behr

Photo Credit: Iskciedlam (Creative Commons)

Categories
Cases General / Musings Textiles

Do Product Labels Matter? Maybe.

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Why is a can for Minute Maid juice like a coat? The answer: Because federal statutes and government regulations prescribe how each is labeled. In the case of juice, the label is prescribed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations promulgated under the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990. In the case of the coat, as apparel manufacturers are all too aware, by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under either the venerable Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939 or the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act. The regulatory schemes share ostensibly the same goal: to assure a uniform national standard and to inform consumers of the content and the qualities of the goods. But what if prescribed rules do not further that purpose?

That is a question posed by a case that the Supreme Court heard on April 21, 2014 Pom Wonderful LLC v. The Coca-Cola Company. Pom’s business revolves around marketing beverages featuring pomegranate juice. Coca-Cola, wishing to cash in on the craze for such beverages, introduced a Minute Maid juice it called “Pomegranate Blueberry.” Notwithstanding the name, pomegranate juice constituted only 0.3% of the contents, and blueberry only 0.2%. The 99.4% of the contents which consisted of apple and grape juice was uncredited in the product name and the graphics decorating the label. Pom sued, claiming that the name “Pomegranate Blueberry” constituted false advertising and unfair competition, as consumers would naturally infer that the product’s main ingredients were pomegranate and blueberry juices. Unfortunately for Pom (and, one might add, for consumers seeking the health benefits of pomegranates and blueberries), FDA regulations specifically permit naming a product for ingredients so minor that they could be described as no more than flavoring.

So, now, the Supreme Court will decide whether a competitor can sue for false advertising and unfair competition when the contents of a label are authorized (or sometimes even required) by government regulations, no matter how misleading. In the language of the law, do the specific provisions of federal labeling law preempt federal and state laws that more broadly and generally protect consumers and competitors from deception as to the contents or quality of the goods?

Should the Court find for Pom, attention will have to be given not only to technical compliance with legal requirements, but also to whether consumers are likely to be misled. One might think Coca-Cola has the better argument. After all, if your labels comply with federal regulations, you should not have to worry about what consumers think. If there is a problem, the fault lies with the government and its regulations. But that conclusion might be wrong. Some of the justices appeared to view the labels as very misleading. Others wondered whether the FDA considered anything other than health and safety in promulgating the regulations and questioned whether assuring that consumers are not misled was the responsibility of the FDA.

Of course, that is the responsibility of the FTC and it is the purpose ostensibly served by the FTC labeling rules for textiles. But even under the FTC rules, you can name your line of sheets “Bamboo,” as long as that is just the name and the fine print on your label states that the fabric is rayon made from bamboo fibers. After all, this is consistent with a regulatory scheme that requires you to state the country of origin of a coat but not that of vitamins or toothpaste.

Credit:  Helene M. Freeman