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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Copyright Registration, Redux

Textile Pattern Quilting Machine

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

Here’s a previous post that may be of interest…


Copyright Registration Still Matters

Procrastination contestIt 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


Tattoo You?

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.

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¹ Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach, 621, F.3d 1051 (9th Cir. 2010)

Credit:  Alan Behr


This Way or That

Gentleman

A young lawyer walked by while working late, waving the striped tie he had just removed, announcing that, after 9:00 p.m., business casual was mandatory. European-born, my colleague’s tie had blue, white and green stripes angled downward from left to right (as seen by the wearer), in the classic British (and predominantly European) tradition. In Britain, the convention developed that, just as each clan in Scotland has its own tartan, each regiment, club and school would likely have its own, distinctive, diagonally striped tie.

On not quite as classic but by now traditional American ties, however, diagonal stripes run in the opposite direction, from right to left. There are various stories about why that is so. As with anything you can find on the Internet, you can discover much that is of interest, some of which might even prove to be true. You may learn, for instance, that the reason the ties slant in different directions is that European infantrymen shouldered their weapons differently from Americans and that their rifles ejected spent casings in an opposite direction. Those explanations are not only fogged by inaccuracy but bear little evidence of good fashion sense.

More credible is the claim by Brooks Brothers that it invented the American right to left downward slide on what it calls a Repp tie (freely admitting that an early spelling error caused it to get wrong the name of the French Rep ribbed silk fabric it used to make the ties). The idea was to bring American “roguish charm” to British tradition–an act that, as is often the case when Americans reference British traditions–acts as both homage and gentle satire. The British officers and gentlemen men who earned the right to wear regimental colors around their necks sometimes being quite sensitive about having earned the exclusive right to that privilege, Brooks Brothers reversed the direction of the stripe in an effort to soothe warrior sensitivities.

American schools have their Repp variations. My American university’s thick-striped tie, in navy blue and burgundy, is guaranteed to dull down almost any suit that goes with it.

The striped tie having now been commonplace for over a century, uncountable combinations of alternating stripe widths and colors have been used. A designer looking to protect his or her intellectual property rights in the patterns of ties may theoretically create a novel combination of colors and widths running in either direction–just enough to warrant a claim for copyright protection. Given the multiplicity of existing designs, that protection, if granted, would likely be a “thin copyright,” but in theory it could happen. The larger question is: why bother? Individual styles rarely last more than one season, after all. Would you really sue to protect the design, hoping the defendant does not dig into neckwear history to find something similar warn by officers of a British regiment since before it fought in the Battle of the Somme?

Each of those regimental, school and club ties identifies a source of origin–raising the possibility that a particular pattern of stripes can be protected as a trademark. As a practical matter, unless a stripe acquires such distinctiveness that the market accepts that it designates a specific source and so is not merely decorative, it is probably not protectable as a trademark. It is possible, again in theory, that a particular pattern of stripes could gain “secondary meaning.” That is, they now serve, through usage, advertising and the passage of time, as branding and devices not merely as pleasing patterns. If that should happen, is it indeed enough of a difference to prevent a claim of infringement to run the same pattern in the opposite direction, just as Brooks Brothers and other American makers did in order to distinguish their patterns from those British ties from which they freely borrowed both conventions and patterns? Much could depend on survey evidence of consumer habits and consumer awareness of the differences. That is another way of saying: if you did not know about all that before reading this post, the difference in the direction of the stripes probably is of no consequence to you; your response to the survey would therefore likely aid the plaintiff in a claim that simply changing the direction of the stripes did not make the defendant’s pattern less likely to cause infringing confusion.

That would support the generally held view that, when it comes to neckties, diagonal stripes, in whatever direction they run, are, in nearly all situations, open territory for designers. Within the quite narrow sartorial conventions of male business attire, however, there is not really all that much new that can likely be done with diagonal stripes in neckties. So, let us all celebrate an ongoing tradition and try not to worry too much about all this. A good striped tie will not necessarily be the one that a lawyer attempts to protect as intellectual property. It will, however, always be one that will work for him just about anywhere.

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We would like to thank Stephen Sidkin of Fox Williams LLP, London, UK, for providing the inspiration and background for this post.

Credit: Alan Behr


I’m A Good Neighbor–Most Places

fashion designer

When licensing a brand, a fashion licensee naturally wants to know not only that the licensor owns the trademarks that identify the brand to the public and the trade but that the licensee will be able to use the marks without having to contend with adverse claims from third parties. The last thing that a licensee wants is to have many thousands of units manufactured and, just as they arrive in ports and warehouses, get hit with an action for trademark infringement, alone or together with trade dress, copyright or design patent infringement. Indeed, an infringement action could contain any of those claims in combination, resulting in a rather complicated federal lawsuit. And if that is not quickly fixed, there goes the spring/summer season, and all those units, made at the licensee’s cost, might just as well never have been produced. As sub-optimal results go, that is about as low as they come for a new fashion collection.

To help protect against that from happening, counsel for the licensee will typically ask for a warranty of non-infringement. In the practical world of transactional law, there are no prizes for originality in draftsmanship, so all non-infringement clauses are like bees in a hive—they all look pretty much alike:

Fashion Company represents and warrants that the Licensed Manufacturer’s use of the Licensed Marks referenced in Exhibit A as contemplated under this agreement shall not infringe upon or violate the intellectual property rights or other rights of any third party in the Territory.

Of course, if things were that simple, licensees would not need lawyers. (Spoiler alert to licensors and licensees reading this series: Do not rely on what you read here as a substitute for legal representation. Please do not attempt to conclude a complex fashion license without benefit of counsel.)

Indeed, contractual law is about nothing if not the hidden complexity found in words and phrases. As signified by its capitalization, the word Territory should be a defined term. If the license is for a Territory defined as the “United States, its territories and possessions, and Canada,” the non-infringement warranty would cover claims made within those specific jurisdictions. Consulting the United States Patent and Trademark Office database to be sure that the licensor’s trademarks are registered and that there are no pending challenges to those registrations is good self-help for the licensee and a prudent caution for the licensor. But if the licensed Territory is defined more broadly—covering all of the Americas, Europe or even the entire world—the licensor may seek to limit the warranty of non-infringement to those portions of the Territory in which it is reasonably confident that it has protected its licensed rights.

And that is how licensees can find themselves with a predicament that is endemic but the fault of no one: there may be parts of the Territory where the licensor cannot be sure claims of infringement will not be made—as anyone who has seen, to his shock, that his trademark has been registered in another country by someone else for use on the same goods.

The solution? There are various methods that can be used here, but key is for the parties to identify the likely most important countries into which the licensed goods will be delivered (and where they will be manufactured—also an important consideration); they should work together to refine the warranty into something that is reasonable and fair under the circumstances. If that is done, the license should also provide a mechanism for the parties to cooperate in the event that the licensee will seek to introduce its products into areas in the Territory for which the warranty would not apply on execution.

The bottom line: It is a big world. Rights and remedies regarding licensed intellectual property can be very different from one nation to another. Care must always be taken to match the business plan for a license with the realities not only of the market but of the law. In the end, it is in the best interest of both parties to see that works out successfully. That proves again why all licenses are, if nothing else, documents of cooperation for the common good of the parties involved.

Credit: Alan Behr

See previously published related posts: