Star Athletica vs. Varsity Brands: Supreme Court Rules Copyright Protection Over Garment Design Elements
Mar 27, 2017 01:19 PM EDT
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on Wednesday that some basic design elements in cheerleader uniform deserve copyright protection. The decision has placed the Varsity Brands Inc, top American maker of the garments on the winning side, with serious implications for the fashion industry.
Varsity is a dominant cheerleader uniform maker that has previously accused Star Athletica LLC of infringing five of its designs. The justices ruled 6-2 to uphold a lower court's 2015 ruling that allowed the lawsuit to proceed.
According to the Supreme Court's opinion, the high court conducted a test in two parts to determine if the design elements qualified for copyright protection. The justices then said the graphic, pictorial or sculptural features of the design should be mandatorily "separated" from any utilitarian object design.
As Varsity contends, the case centered on whether the zigzags, stripes, and chevrons that typify cheerleader uniforms can be copyrighted, or are essential to the purpose of the garment that they should not deserve such legal copyright protection. Without such decorations, a cheerleader uniform might look like a "little black dress," Star Athletica argued.
The features would also have to merit copyright protection independently. The opinion was released on the basis that Congress has given limited copyright protection to certain features of industrial design, despite Congress' intent to entirely exclude industrial design from copyright issues.
The court ruling said that approaching the statute with presumptive hostility toward protection for industrial design was the basis of undermining the decision. The opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas alongside Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, according to Insurance Journal.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred in the majority decisions but said she would not have applied a "separability" test. Meanwhile, Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy showed dissent towards the copyright protection, saying the elements are inseparable from the design.