Supreme Court to Resolve When Copyright Suit Can Commence

On January 8, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC. The court is expected to resolve a decades-old split of opinion among the federal Circuit Courts on whether the Copyright Act permits a lawsuit to be filed upon submission of a copyright application or not until the copyright registration certificate has been issued or refused.

The language in the statute is simple. 17 U.S.C. § 411 reads: “no civil action shall be instituted until … registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.” The statute also provides that, “[i]n any case … where the deposit, application, and fee required for registration have been delivered to the Copyright Office in proper form and registration has been refused, the applicant is entitled to institute a civil action for infringement if notice thereof, with a copy of the complaint, is served on the Register of Copyrights.”

In this case, Fourth Estate sued Wall-Street.com when the website continued to publish Fourth Estate’s work after the expiration of the limited license that had been granted to the website. Fourth Estate filed copyright applications for the misappropriated online publications and then asserted a claim for copyright infringement; however, its claim was dismissed by the Eleventh Circuit because the Copyright Office had not yet issued registration certificates. As have the Courts of Appeal for the Third and Seventh Circuits, the Eleventh Circuit follows the Tenth Circuit’s “registration approach,” which requires the Copyright Office to have acted on an application for registration by approving or denying it prior to initiating a lawsuit. The Fifth and the Ninth Circuits, however, follow the “application approach,” which allows for the commencement of an action upon filing a copyright application.

The split among those courts has large implications for photographers, writers, musicians, and fashion designers. For instance, the Copyright Office application processing time is notoriously slow: it can range from six months to more than a year to issue a registration. Creators are forced to endure an unpredictable wait time – or avoid that delay by paying an additional $800 special handling fee for expedited processing. In a seasonal industry such as fashion, where trends evolve so quickly and styles head to market within just a few months from creation, a small company cannot afford to sit back and wait for its copyright applications to be processed if infringement appears to be a credible threat, but it may also find that filing multiple applications with very significant expedited processing fees imposes an unacceptably great financial burden.

The fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar international industry. It has been argued that requiring the issuance of a registration certificate (or a refusal to register from the Copyright Office) for American authors and domestic works before litigation can commence conflicts with the de-emphasis on copyright formalities established by the Berne Convention, which governs copyrights across the globe. For now, this is all in the hands of the Supreme Court. We will provide a follow-up post when its decision is rendered.

Credit: Candace R. Arrington


The Curious Case of the Cheerleader Uniforms

Cheerleader-with single focus

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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Let Us All Cheer On The Supreme Court Of The United States

Supreme Court Of The United States of America

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 Cheerleaders Uniformdecision 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

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