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
Every autumn, at my high school in New Orleans, for many, education was made to stand in line behind football. Ordinarily, in the heat and humidity of The Big Easy, any kind of activity beyond that needed to populate bars and strip clubs was considered unnecessary and even dangerous. (The older brother of a good friend died of heat stroke from playing high school football.)
And yet football, that proud exception to the rule, was worshiped every autumn. If the players were the priests of this brawny faith, what did that make the cheerleaders? The nuns? For their habits, the girls wore blue and yellow uniforms that were both comfortable and amenable to much athleticism, the requirements for the job being lots of jumping, pom-pom pushing and the occasional lift and twist into a fully inverted position. The garments were not all that successful in wicking away moisture, and the girls made quite an effort to maintain the required posture of irrepressible enthusiasm—while battling cascading perspiration.
That comes to mind as we consider that the Supreme Court has just agreed to hear an appeal from a copyright case about cheerleader uniforms: Varsity Brands, Inc. et al., v. Star Athletica, LLC. The Supreme Court rarely accepts copyright cases—it will accept one every few years—and barely will the decision have been announced before a cascade of articles by professors, lawyers, law students and the lay press will appear to interpret it and opine on its implications for the freedom of expression and the business of expression.
As the case currently stands, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in an appeal from a district court in western Tennessee, has ruled that simple designs on cheerleading uniforms consisting largely of “stripes, chevrons, zigzags, and colorblocks” are protectable by copyright. The court noted the basic rule, which we have discussed on these pages, that, “the Copyright Act protects fabric designs, but not dress designs.” The court went on to say, “Because we believe that the graphic features of Varsity’s cheerleading-uniform designs are more like fabric design than dress design, we hold that they are protectable subject matter under the Copyright Act…as pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works.” Functionality, such as wicking away all that perspiration, proved not to be a consideration for the court.
The court also rejected the argument of the defendant that the designs in question simply represented by the cheerleading uniform should be unprotected. There are just so many ways to make a uniform for an adolescent girl look like she is a cheerleader by the uniform alone—without, that is, making her shake her pompoms until you get the point. Although there may indeed be characteristics common to most cheerleading uniforms, those stripes, chevrons, zigzags and colorblocks, when sewn into a dress, were sufficiently unique as to warrant protection as a copyrightable design.
What the Supreme Court will be reviewing is quite specific: the standard employed by the court in determining how to separate (only conceptually because it cannot be removed physically in these fashion cases), a two-dimensional design from the functional garment on which it is placed in order to examine whether it is protectable by copyright. The lower court previously examined nine such standards (or “tests,” as they are often called) that have been floated or actually used and then went on to adopt one of its own invention, formed around five questions it asked itself.
The adage that the Supreme Court does not accept cases in order to affirm them may possibly apply here, but with its own tenth test now on the books (by the Sixth Circuit’s reckoning), it also seems quite possible that we will either be seeing the embrace of one of the prior nine or will be presented with an eleventh that will potentially replace all its predecessors nationwide.
And that, in short, throws open for speculation whether, in applying the test the Supreme Court will enunciate, the lower courts will still hold that uniform designs such as those at issue in this particular case are subject to copyright protection. Whatever the outcome on that point, the general rule does not appear in any way in danger: at least for the purposes of copyright, in the USA, copying a dress pattern (but not necessarily the pattern of the fabric itself) is largely permissible. The rest, as in so much about both fashion and law, is all about the details.
Credit: Alan Behr