The beaches of summer remind us that it is no disrespect for any of us to confess that most people do not look their best in swimwear and that those who do probably would look great in just about anything. Simply, the more the body is revealed, the more the aesthetic duties that are commonly undertaken by fashion are left to uncovered skin. Call it a triumph of artifice over nature, but for most of us, more clothing, rather than less clothing, even on the beach, is often a good thing. Fashion may make the great-looking come across even greater, but it is often a turning point, in the direction of great, for the rest of us in how we present ourselves to the world.
My colleagues and I have been writing and speaking quite a bit this year about the Star Athletica case—the Supreme Court decision that turned cheerleader uniforms into the biggest issue in fashion law in years. (Law is made by the cases actually brought, and this one just happened to be about uniforms worn by cheerleaders, but by its potential impact, you might well imagine the clothes were couture evening wear.) If nothing else, the case reaffirmed (that is, it did not change) the fact that, in the USA, anything functional in fashion cannot be protected by copyright registration (or with a design patent). When applied to swimwear, which typically represents about the minimum that the law allows any of us to wear in public, whatever precious square inches of cloth are involved almost always serve some kind of function. Finding something protectable in what is there can involve examining decorative clasps, closures and add-ons—but minimalism is the essence of swimsuit design, and such design elaborations are quite rare. That leaves for examination whatever small amount of fabric is actually in use.
As we have noted in these pages before, fabric patterns are protectable, and here, Star Athletica may be helpful in providing guidance. The Supreme Court has now told us that we need only look at a fabric pattern laid flat (in reality or imagination) to view it as we would any two-dimensional artwork to determine if it is original enough to be protectable by copyright. The shape into which it is cut—as swim trunks or a bikini, for example—is irrelevant. That is good news for fabric designers. It confirms that it does not matter how little of the design is there to see: if it is original and visible, it is theoretically protectable.
During the 4th of July weekend, I heard a young man compliment another, his tennis partner, on baggy swim trunks and a matching baseball hat—both made of blue cloth filled with an exaggerated white pattern that looked like multiple slash marks. At a pool the day before, a woman was similarly complimented for a black bikini that had small but intricate white designs only on the cloth that just about covered her right hip and left breast. If any of that is original, it may well be protectable.
Does that mean it is getting harder for a fashion company to know if a fabric being offered to it for use in garments is potentially infringing on the rights of others? Does it mean you have to worry about some design that would not fill the space that could be occupied by a chocolate-chip cookie? Unfortunately, that is likely the case. Where that next takes us is for the courts to decide—but not for now. Summer is here and many of those people you will see on the beach are copyright lawyers and judges, putting much of this behind them until fall.
Credit: Alan Behr
It had to happen, and it did in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal. Late in February, Jacob Gallagher contributed an article persuasively advocating for a new appreciation of baggy pants. Even as The New York Times obsessively writes about President Trump (Not long after the inauguration, I counted twenty-six pieces revisited to him on The Times‘ home page.), here comes the more conservatively leaning Journal to bring us news we can use: the ins and outs of wearing slouchy trousers.
Menswear runs in somewhat erratic cycles, with lean and trim tailoring having been the look in (roughly speaking) the years following WWI and the 1960s and much of this century, with looser cuts, often led by trousers with pleats, having been in vogue in the decades in between. Risking a generalization, when youth dominates fashion and popular culture, slim is in. Consider The Beatles and all those earnest young and lesser bands of our present era. Giorgio Armani rose to fame when he helped end that earlier cycle with his looser cut suits that draped, rather than seemingly adhered to, Richard Gere in American Gigolo (1980). In his Journal story, Jacob Gallagher quoted Patrick Grant, the designer for E. Tautz (London): “A lot of people are just not built for skinny trousers, particularly those of us who have a few years under our belt.”
All well and true, except when it isn’t. As Mr. Gallagher just barely hinted, baggy is hard to pull off if you are what he politely termed “vertically challenged”—which is to say, you can all too easily end up looking like a bar mitzvah boy forced to wear one of his father’s suits. I am not short but not anywhere near tall and not in my first youth. Having slimmed down to my high school weight and buffed up in the gym, however, I slide into the trim, Italian-inspired Brooks Brothers Milano cut like a cartridge into a revolver breech. My London tailor, Henry Poole & Co., had to snip my pattern down to comply with the requirements of my new physique. I trimmed the trousers of the Henry Poole suits already in my wardrobe and have gone down two waist sizes, even as I only buy slim cuts in casual wear. A leading fashion stylist who had worked hard in the svelte-deprived ’90s to get me to puff out now says I look great while deflated back to slim. Who wants to upset that?
And so: a thank you to The Journal for letting me know that slouchy has again gone mainstream. This time, I am having none of it. As I said in these pages before, I realized late in life (as a Uniqlo customer), that I have the taste and build of a Japanese teenager. Every other guy can and, if it strikes him as correct, go baggier than Bozo. This fit but not so tall guy is sticking with the trim cut that suits him best.
As my partner Helene Freeman has blogged, we await word from the Supreme Court about what standard will be used to determine what designs on cheerleader uniforms are properly protectable by copyright. (Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc., et al.). That case could have wide implications for anyone whose after-school activities include jumping up and down in decorated tennis dresses in front of football bleachers—and potentially for many others as well. The debate on the cut of trousers, shirts and jackets will, happily, be unaffected. In the USA, despite sincere efforts to change the law, the pattern (outline) of a garment is unprotected as long as it is a functional element—which it nearly always is. Designers and their customers have free reign to go baggy or keep it lean, without interference by lawyers or judges. The question, I am happy to report, is one of taste, not of jurisprudence, at least under American law. Apply your own style sense or consult your own personal stylist, and best wishes with that.
Credit: Alan Behr
Wow, time does fly fast!
THE FASHION INDUSTRY LAW BLOG IS CELEBRATING TWO YEARS!
On May 19, 2014, our Fashion Practice launched The Fashion Industry Law Blog. Two years and 72 posts later, we are widely read and re-posted. We hope you have signed up to receive our posts in your inbox automatically as they are published* or have visited our site from time-to-time.
During the last two years, we have published posts related to copyrights and trademarks, licensing, real estate, labor and employment and notable cases of interest to the fashion and luxury goods communities. We have also published posts classified as “general musings” — light commentary about the goings-on in fashion that may be hip, trendy or controversial.
We will continue to share timely posts targeted to designers, senior executives, entrepreneurs, in-house counsel, fashionistas and fashionistos.
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The Fashion Law Team at Phillips Nizer LLP
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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
The bankruptcy and attempted reorganization of American Apparel demonstrate not just that fashion is a risky business but also that, in bad times as well as good, it brings into play some unique considerations. First among those is that fashion businesses tend to arise from the unique vision of one or a very few individuals. That is true as well for tech startups, but except for a few software geniuses (such as Mark Zuckerberg), entrepreneurial masters (such as Bill Gates) and brilliant marketers (such as Steve Jobs), once a tech business gets going, skilled replacements are relatively easy to find.
That is not the case when the founder and guiding light of a fashion business is also its chief designer. As even well-established brands have demonstrated, bringing in a new designer who understands a brand’s signature looks and who can add his or her own vision while somehow keeping all that fresh (and keeping loyal customers purchasing) is not an easy feat.
The situation at American Apparel was ironically even more complicated because much of the trouble started when its founder, Dov Charney, was forcibly removed. More of a businessman than the creator of a signature style (American Apparel was all about ever-cool basics made in the USA), he dominated the company. He made a failed effort to return; and while everyone involved focused attention on that, the business lost its vision and too many of its customers, and then slid into receivership. That might have happened anyway, but the disruptions caused by the long-running Charney episode may well have been the tipping point.
It all serves as a reminder that, in fashion, getting a clear and effective legal structure into place as early as possible, with understandable methods and procedures for personnel transitions and successions, could potentially be a business-saver. True, Ralph Lauren, that grand warrior for American gentlemanly style, simply and graciously stepped aside as CEO of his company, letting the business keep running, apparently seamlessly, from there. But legal planning is not about expecting the best; it is, unfortunately, about hoping for the best while planning for the worst. And when it comes to fashion and the people in fashion, that is nearly always a prudent way to go.
Credit: Alan Behr
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