The US Supreme Court has settled the closely watched Varsity Brands Inc. et al. v. Star Athletica LLC copyright dispute, holding that cheerleading outfits contain distinct design elements that allow for copyright ownership. The ruling has wide implications for both the fashion apparel and home furnishings industry, both of which rely on distinctive, eye-catching designs to sell products.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided with Varsity Brands in a 6-2 vote. Varsity Brands Inc., the world’s largest maker of cheerleading apparel, alleged copyright infringement claims against rival manufacturer Star Athletica LLC. In particular, Varsity Brands claimed that the stripes, chevrons and other visual design elements on their uniforms are eligible for copyright protection.
Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with that contention if such designs “can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article” and “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.” The Varsity Brands uniform designs satisfied that test and, thus, are eligible for copyright protection, he wrote.
Justice Thomas also was careful to note that the ruling only limits competitors from copying Varsity Brands’ “surface designs” and not the underlying clothing shape. “Respondents have no right to prevent anyone from manufacturing a cheerleading uniform that is identical in shape, cut, or dimensions to the uniforms at issue here,” he wrote.
The dispute began in 2010. Star Athletica’s attorneys contended that clothing, as a “useful item,” is not eligible for copyright protection. Furthermore, Star Athletica claimed that the asserted design elements were simply a component of the cheerleading uniforms, and without them, each garment no longer would be a cheerleading outfit. A federal district court initially sided with defendant Star Athletica in 2014, but a Sixth Circuit panel reversed that decision the following year.
This decision confirms long-standing principles of copyright protection which have been found to include three-dimensional sculptural works and ornamentation applied to other “useful items” such as furniture pieces. A 2010 Court of Appeals decision from the Fourth Circuit set forth this principle in "Universal Furniture Int’l, Inc. v. Collezione Europa USA, Inc.," 618 F. 3d 417, and copyright remains an important tool in the furniture and home furnishings industry.
With yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, manufacturers of other fashion-guided products, including specifically apparel and clothing accessories, can take advantage of this new standard of copyright protection to combat increasing threats of counterfeits and other “knock-offs.” In particular, fashion brands should review their product lines to ensure that copyright-eligible products are protected under this new standard, as well through more traditional trademark mechanisms.