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
While the Supreme Court’s recent healthcare and marriage equality rulings garnered a lot of attention, there was another decision at the end of the Court’s term that may be more meaningful to the business of fashion – Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, the Spiderman patent litigation. Steven Kimble secured a patent for a Spiderman toy that shot the character’s “webs” from a hand. Marvel, owner of the character, purchased the patent to resolve a claim of patent infringement, promising to pay royalties on sales of the toy.
The popularity of the toy outlived the twenty-year patent term. Under a fifty-year-old Supreme Court decision, the obligation to pay royalties under a contract ends when the patent term expires, even if the agreement contains no termination date. Court decisions have applied the same rule to copyright licenses and assignments.
The Spiderman case called for the Supreme Court to reconsider the rule and permit the continued collection of royalties as provided in the contract. Although conceding that the fifty-year-old case might have been wrongly decided, as a number of courts and commentators have noted, the Court declined the opportunity to overrule it. Instead, it advised that, if the rule is to be changed, it is up to Congress to do so. Spidey is now free to cast his web without writing any more checks.
The decision is a reminder to licensors that patent and copyright rights do not last forever. In contrast, trademarks last as long as they are used and protected and trade secrets last as long as their secrecy is maintained. Joining a license for patents and copyrights with related trademarks or trade secrets can be a good way to maintain royalties after the patents and copyrights have expired. Licensees, on the other hand, should periodically investigate whether they are paying royalties under patents or copyrights that may have expired.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman
I was struck by the news that Target’s limited edition Lily Pulitzer collection sold out within hours, after Target took its website off-line in the face of extraordinary demand when the collection went on sale. It is surprising that a sophisticated retailer and a well-known fashion brand did not expect either the demand or that it would manifest itself in a stampede to Target’s website. Can it be that fashion brands and retailers do not appreciate the fundamental shift in consumer behavior of which this is merely the latest manifestation?
As the mother of a daughter who is what the media has taken to calling a millennial, I have had a highly personal view of the change in what was once a fundamental consumer activity: shopping. For me, shopping, which includes searching for luxury brands at bargain prices, is a treasured leisure time activity. It was an activity I used to share with my daughter. The siren call of the mall in Florida, California or wherever else I might be where there was a mall was an essential not-to-be-missed feature of any vacation. And in Manhattan, which has no malls, a stroll on Fifth Avenue or Madison Avenue was a wonderful activity on a nice day.
That stopped when my daughter became a teenager. The one and only shopping trip we have taken in the last 5 years was to find a gown for the prom. That’s not to say that my daughter is not obsessed with fashion or is not an inveterate shopper. She spends more time shopping than I ever did. But the only stores she visits in person are Sephora, to play with cosmetics, the Apple store, to play with gadgets, and thrift shops and vintage stores to find that perfect ugly Christmas sweater or 60’s bargain accessory.
Instead, she shops on-line at all hours of the day and night, particularly when she is procrastinating to avoid writing papers or completing other school assignments. She shops on her iphone, on her iPad and on her Macbook. She orders everything she is interested in on-line, preferring to try things on in the comfort of her own room, returning what doesn’t work and keeping what does.
For her, on-line shopping is also a highly social and communal activity. She sends links of potential purchases to friends and solicits their opinions. She takes selfies of herself in garments to poll her friends on what she should keep. She follows the brands she likes on social media so that she knows what’s coming and when the sales start.
None of this is new. It has been going on now for years. It is the reason why malls are dying and why some teen retailers have struggled while others have thrived. It has dramatic implications for fashion brands and retailers and important implications for lawyers who serve them. We all must master the internet, social media and the changes in distribution channels that these portend. So bear in mind all: this is the generation that killed the compact disc and record stores and is well on its way to killing iTunes, even though it consumes more music from all over the world than we ever did. It is killing the book store and books (college texts can be rented, ordered on-line and sometimes consumed electronically), although it actually reads more than we do. You’d better get with the “what I want, when I want it, without getting dressed” generation or you’ll soon be a relic of the past. And message to Target and other retailers: if you frustrate your customers and they see your goods as something unattainably dangled out of their reach, you’ve lost them as customers. Millennials do not take frustration well, and the web offers lots of alternatives that are more accommodating. Like Top Shop!
Credit: Helene M. Freeman