If you were hoping that following the Supreme Court’s decision in Star Athletica you might learn whether common stripes, chevrons, color blocks and zig zags are sufficiently original to be copyrightable—a question expressly reserved by the Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit– you will be disappointed. On August 10, 2017, the district court permitted Varsity Brands to voluntarily dismiss its copyright infringement action against Star Athletica with prejudice, over the objection of Star Athletica, which wished to pursue its counter-claims seeking to invalidate the Varsity Brands copyrights.
You might well ask, as we did, why after seven years of largely successful litigation, Varsity Brands would be permitted to walk away. Or you might ask, as we also did, why Star Athletica would object to having the suit end with no apparent injunctive or other relief awarded against it. Both are fair questions and the answer to each is unusual: The insurance company that was defending Star Athletica reached a settlement agreement with Varsity Brands, without the participation or approval of Star Athletica. The terms of the settlement are confidential. The only clue is the court’s reservation to Varsity Brands of the right to return to court if it does not receive the payment from the insurer required by the settlement. As far as Varsity Brands is concerned, not only does it get money, but it also avoids the potential for invalidation of its copyrights, having made its point that the two dimensional designs reflected in its uniforms are separable from their utilitarian features and theoretically capable of copyright protection. It now has a stronger threat to hurl at potential competitors.
But what of Star Athletica and its interest in settling its rights to compete with Varsity Brands in the cheerleading uniform market? In the view of the court, Star Athletica receives what is in effect immunity from future claims of copyright infringement related to the copyrights and uniforms at issue in the action. And also in the court’s view, Star Athletica’s counter-claims to invalidate the copyrights were only defenses to the copyright infringement claims and not independent bases for legal action once the threat of copyright liability was removed. And that is the rub: Varsity Brands has many other copyright registrations for which similar challenges to their validity might (or might not) have merit. Because the court did not provide guidance on that fundamental point, competing uniform makers remain exposed to similar infringement claims.
One can’t help feeling that the broader fashion public had an interest in the resolution of the question of whether stripes and chevrons are original when applied to garments. But it is an axiom of federal court litigation that the courts do not decide hypothetical cases or controversies for the edification of the public.
For now, if you are interested in whether stripes can be protected in fashion, you will have to focus on trademarks and not copyrights. There is always Gucci’s suit against Forever 21 for knocking off what it claims is its stripes trademark. And then, too, there is Adidas’ pending suit against Skechers for knocking off its three stripe trademark. The district court in Oregon just decided that Adidas’ trademark infringement suit can proceed.
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