Supreme Court Cheers on Copyright Separability
In a 51-page majority opinion, justice Clarence Thomas wrote that since the uniforms - similar to a t-shirt, paper towels, car, or other useful real-world items - serve a function, they can not be copyrighted. And that can be copyrighted. Breyer said that the images Varsity seeks protection for are simply pictures of cheerleader uniforms. "The majority concluded that these requirements are met if the features of the design "(1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or in some other medium if imagined separately from the useful article".
The closely watched case centered on whether the stripes, zigzags and chevrons that typify cheerleader uniforms can be copyrighted, as Varsity contends, or are so fundamental to the goal of the garment that they should not deserve such legal protection.
"First, one can identify the decorations as features having pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities", Thomas wrote.
And imaginatively removing the surface decorations from the uniforms and applying them in another medium would not replicate the uniform itself.
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The court handed a 6-2 verdict in favor of Varsity Brands Inc., a maker of cheerleader uniforms, in its dispute with smaller rival Star Athletica LLC.
Under federal law, a design can be copyrighted if it is separable from a product's utilitarian aspects. I want to thank our Supreme Court counsel, Willy Jay of Goodwin Procter LLP, for his incredibly effective and wise counsel.
Justice Thomas, writing for a five-member majority of the Court, affirmed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit. The Court re-emphasized, however, that a design feature itself can not constitute a useful article and still obtain copyright protection. Congress has declined to provide broad copyright protection to the fashion industry, though textile designs are eligible, he said.
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Mar 23 2017