Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc.

Following is the case brief for Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., 137 S. Ct. 1002 (2017)

Case Summary of Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc.:

  • Varsity Brands sued Star Athletica for infringement of its design of cheerleading uniforms.
  • The lower courts disagreed as to whether the design could be separated from the utilitarian function of the uniform to be eligible for copyright.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court held that Varsity Brands design can be identified separately, can exist independently of the cheerleading uniform, and therefore is eligible for copyright.  It announced a two-part test to make that determination: a design on a useful article is eligible for copyright if it (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 work if it were imagined separately from the useful article

Star Athletica L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The Copyright Act of 1976 provides that “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” of the “design of a useful article” are eligible for copyright protection as artistic works if those features “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.”

Varsity Brands has many copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs on the surface of the cheerleading uniforms that they design, make, and sell.  Varsity sued Star Athletica, a company that also makes cheerleading uniforms, for copyright infringement.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court granted summary judgment to Star, finding that Varsity’s design could not be conceptually or physically separated from the uniforms, and thus could not be copyrighted.
  • The Sixth Circuit reversed, finding that the graphics could be identified separately and were capable of existing independently from the uniforms.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Were the designs of cheerleading uniforms sufficiently separate from the utilitarian aspect of the uniform to be eligible for copyright?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A design on a useful article is eligible for copyright if it (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 work if it were imagined separately from the useful article.

Reasoning:

This case is meant to “resolve the widespread disagreement over the proper test for implementing the Copyright Act’s separate identification and independent-existence requirements.”  Accordingly, a copyright can protect a feature in a useful article’s design only if “the feature (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 fixed in some other tangible medium of expression – if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated.”

That two-part test is satisfied here.  The decorations can be identified as features having pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities.  Also, if the decorations were separated from the uniforms, and they were displayed in a different medium, they could be two-dimensional works of art.  Also, just because the “work of art” in a different medium would still create the outline of a cheerleading uniform does not mean it is a bar to copyright.  Just like painting on a canvas, the art in this case must conform to the contours of the cheerleading uniform.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Ginsburg):

Consideration of the separability test the majority uses is not necessary here.  The designs at issue are not designs of useful articles.  Rather, they are artistic works reproduced on useful articles.

Dissenting Opinion (Breyer):

Applying the two-part test, the designs cannot be considered separate from the useful article of the cheerleading uniform.  Pictures of the design features essentially are pictures of cheerleading uniforms.  Thus, the design cannot exist independent of the utilitarian aspects of the article.

Significance:

Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. is a significant case for the fashion industry because it was generally believed that fashion designs were uncopyrightable.  While intellectual property scholars disagree as to whether the standard in the case makes the law clearer or more ambiguous, the decision opened the doors for copyright protection of fashion designs.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

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