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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When The CEO Must Go

American Apparel fashion store on April 23, 2013 in Manchester, UK. American Apparel was founded in 1989.

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


Patent Falls In Spiderman’s Web: Are You Paying Royalties Unnecessarily?

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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


The Blogger Blogged

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As everyone knows, lawyers have far too many stellar qualities to enumerate here. We have a sense of humor. (Who can forget, after all, the priceless nugget of wit that goes: “What do you call one hundred lawyers on the bottom of the ocean?” Answer: “A good start.”) We are sure there must be just as many good ones about chiropractors, occupational therapists and entomologists.

And lawyers are media stars. Whenever an attorney is convicted of a felony in the line of duty, doesn’t it always make headlines? Lawyers are also highly respected for their assertiveness, as knows any lawyer whose application to rent an apartment was mysteriously and inexplicably denied.

But who knew that lawyers could also be fashion trend-setters? So it appeared from a blog several months ago, in which the author of this blog was blogged. The post was in the form of a column about accessories worn by attendees at the charity benefit held on the opening night of an antiques fair.

The site is New York Social Diary, in which David Patrick Columbia, combining the roles of Edith Wharton and Henry James for an earlier generation, chronicles the real life moments that those earlier writers drew upon for much of their fiction. The blogger in the guest column was Alison Minton, a friend and queen of New York style, who reports for the site on accessories. In my debut as a fashion icon, you can clearly see the Ralph Lauren necktie and pocket square that were the objects of the author’s attention, along with a fair bit of the Henry Poole bespoke suit that they accented and almost none of my face. As my earlier appearances in New York Social Diary and elsewhere have shown, that omission was no loss at all to the reader. It did, in this instance, force all attention on not who I am but on what I had chosen to wear in the expression of who I am. It demonstrates in pictorial form that what each of us holds as our personal style is both a part of us and an abstraction of us. We are what we wear, but what we wear is also a part of us and a metaphor for how we wish to be perceived.

It also reminds me that, as someone who will on occasion take this forum as a soapbox on which to stand and proclaim what is and is not good style, acting as a fashion authority is uniquely hard work. A theater critic need not act or direct; an art critic is not expected to paint or sculpt; but we all wear clothes. A style critic, therefore, is always in danger of being held accountable for his or her own style success and failures. (And we all have both, to be sure.) This line of work is not for the faint-hearted—but neither is any job in fashion and accessories. Would any of us have it any other way?

Credit: Alan Behr


The Frostbite Award

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Each year, as winter approaches, I prepare for a presentation—solely in my own mind—of the Frostbite Award. That is the imaginary award that I give to the last person seen wearing flip flops in the course of a given autumn/winter season. Flip flops as working or commuting footwear have always been something of a mystery to me. Flip flops are, after all, beach sandals, but as urban footwear, the flip flop trend has had formidable staying power far north of the Tropic of Cancer. In spring/summer, I assume it is all about comfort, but how does that explain the continued presence of urban flip flops as the days shorten, the leaves fall, and even as the snows arrive? Only the recipient of the Annual Frostbite Award knows for sure—that brave, hearty urbanite who freezes from their toes to their heels in the name of style. We can only admire their perseverance.

Credit:  Alan Behr

Photo Credit: placeboe (Creative Commons)


Getting Along–And Getting Away With It

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As we noted in an earlier post, one of the most familiar teams in fashion is the designer and his business manager, such as Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. There are also design teams such as Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabanna. (Taking the role of the “suit” in that family business is CEO Alfonso Dolce, who is Domenico’s brother.) If it is essentially just two of you at first, little, if anything, may end up in writing, but as your business expands, that kind of relaxed approach will become impossible to maintain. If roles and, just as important, compensation, are not formalized, misunderstandings and disputes are likely to arise. The law being about nothing if not the prevention of disputes and their resolution, we always advocate the preventative approach: set things up to prevent troubles from the start, so that they don’t jump out at you from a bend down the road—and make doing business either unnecessarily difficult or completely impossible.

Start with the form of your organization. Although it is legally possible, to a point, for two or more people just to announce they are a business and to operate as an unorganized general partnership, that is rarely a sound approach. Every partner will immediately become, and remain, personally liable for everything the business does and for its financial problems—all of them, whoever among the team may have caused them. You can make things a bit easier for yourselves by putting it in writing, but what you put in writing is critical, and it makes sense to organize in a way that limits personal liability. Keep in mind that the word partner, which has a precise legal definition, is thrown around indiscriminately these days to mean any pairing, from companies doing business together to people in love. In a general partnership, however, the old-time definition of partner applies: a co-venturer who is personally on the hook, for whatever he or she is worth and then some, for whatever debts and other liabilities the business may incur.

To prevent that from happening, two generally preferable organizational structures are available for new businesses that intend to engage in designing, manufacturing, distributing or selling fashions or accessories: the corporation and the limited liability company. They are both roads that lead to the same good end: if the business is conducted properly, its owners generally are immunized from personal liability for the actions of the company. Which organization form works better for you is a question that your legal and tax advisors will help you resolve at the time of organization.

For both forms, however, there is an important doctrine of law that has to be considered, and its consequences need to be avoided: “piercing the corporate veil.” It is every bit as brutal as it sounds. The “veil” of limited liability is “pierced” and you end up personally liable for the debts of the business, legal judgments against it, and so on. The easiest way for that to happen is for a business owner to use the company as a “mere instrumentality” for himself or herself, for example, using the business’s checking account to pay for personal obligations or otherwise comingling business and personal funds. You say you would never do that? Good. Now look over your shoulder and ask if your co-venturer is as careful in the segregation of business from personal affairs as you are. If that is not the case, it may be a good time to get the company’s attorney involved and do a business practices compliance review.

We never said that getting along is easy to do.

Credit: Alan Behr

Photo Credit: Andypiper (Creative Commons)