Supreme Court allows copyright protection of cheerleading uniforms

Toni Houston
March 24, 2017

The district court found that the designs were not protectable because they could not be separated from the utilitarian objective of identifying the garments as cheerleading uniforms. The Court devoted slightly more - but still quite little - ink to the requirement that a design be "capable of existing independently", concluding that a design feature must be able to exist as its own pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work "once it is imagined apart from the useful article".

Star Athletica, which was sued by Varsity, argued that its competitor's copyrights were invalid because the designs were necessary to the uniforms' essential function of identifying the wearer as a cheerleader.

A number of fashion brands, designers, and industry groups-including the Fashion Law Institute, Narciso Rodriguez, Proenza Schouler, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America-filed amicus briefs in support of Varsity Brands, and to represent the fashion industry's concern that a ruling in favor of Star Athletica would be a threat to designers' ability to protect their designs.

This case involved lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes on cheerleader uniforms.

Varsity Brands' designs met that test, Thomas said.

The decision comes almost seven years after Varsity Brands, the leading American maker of the garments, first sued Star Athletica, a smaller rival, for infringing on five Varsity cheerleading uniform designs. He said that, if a design were etched or painted on a guitar and then used for an album cover, it would still look like a guitar "but the image on the cover does not "replicate" the guitar as a useful article".

The issue in the case is rather technical, dealing with what legal test courts should use to determine whether a component of a useful article such as a garment is eligible for copyright protection.

Webb said that Star Athletica isn't really a major player in the industry but it was "virtually copying" its designs and saying they had a right to do that.

Other reports by Ligue1talk

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