Images from appendix of the opinion of the court – Varsity Brands’ uniform designs.
Star Athletica won at the district court, when the court held that Varsity Brands’ design was not eligible for copyright protection. Varsity Brands appealed, the appeals court reversed the district court’s ruling in favor of Varsity Brands, setting up a show-down at the Supreme Court, who agreed to hear the case. The Supreme Court held that the decorative elements on Varsity Brands’ cheerleading uniforms are indeed worthy of copyright protection, despite aiding in the utility of the uniform.
But what does this all really mean and what effects could it have on the marketplace?
The Elements of Proving Copyright Infringement
Copyright law provides protection for “creative works” which includes things like photographs, books, paintings, music and other artistic creations. However, copyright protection can also cover much more, such as advertising copy, computer code, and according to the Supreme Court’s decision, even the stripes, zigzags, chevrons and color blocks on cheerleading uniforms. Copyright law allows a copyright owner to stop others from (among other things) reproducing the copyrighted work without permission.
However, not everything deserves copyright protection. A piece of paper with a circle on it is not considered “creative” enough to warrant copyright protection. Neither are words, short phrases, or slogans. It has also long been held that the shape of an article of clothing is not eligible for copyright protection because it is a “useful article,” and copyright law does not protect the mechanical or utilitarian aspects of a “work.” But where is that line between protectable copyrighted work and unprotected, freely-available work for all to copy? That is a part of the question the Supreme Court was asked to answer in this case.
The Court was asked to answer not whether the cheerleading uniform is copyrightable, but rather whether the designs on the uniform are. To do so, the Court had to determine (1) whether the design could be perceived as a design separate from the cheerleading uniform, and if so, (2) whether the design would qualify for copyright protection.
The Supreme Court Concludes That a Work of Art Affixed to a Uniform Fabric is Protectable Under Copyright Law
The Court ultimately held that the cheerleading uniforms designs were capable of copyright protection, even if the designs contribute to the utilitarian aspect of the uniform. The Court held that the designs, when imagined separate from the cheerleading uniform, would qualify for protection. For example, if the stripes and zigzags were painted on a canvas, then the design would qualify for copyright protection separate from the unprotectable and utilitarian clothing item. The opposite of that is also true, the Court held. If, for example, someone made a cardboard model of a car, then the cardboard model may be protected under copyright law as a sculpture that replicates the car, even if the actual shape of a normal car is not protectable under copyright law.
So what does this decision mean?
The Supreme Court stated that:
To be clear, the only feature of the cheerleading uniform eligible for a copyright in this case is the . . . work of art fixed