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Opinion analysis: Court uses cheerleader uniform case to validate broad copyright in industrial designs

It’s the kind of case my colleagues who teach copyright law might spend an entire class session analyzing, pondering the pros and cons of copyright protection for industrial designs. In a rare moment for the Roberts Court, the opinion in Star Athletica v Varsity Brands addressed that question broadly and categorically, passing up every opportunity to narrow or confine its ruling.

The case involves cheerleader uniforms designed by Varsity Brands, the market leader, and copied by Star Athletica. The legal problem is whether copyright protection, which extends naturally not only to works of music and literature, but also to “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural” works, protects the particular combination of chevrons, zigzags and stripes that characterizes Varsity’s uniforms. Star Athletica argues, with considerable support from lower courts and commentators, that this kind of “industrial” design, largely influenced by utilitarian considerations, does not warrant copyright protection, which is best reserved for wholly aesthetic creations. The majority opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas, though, has nothing to say about concerns of competition policy. Rather, as you might expect from a Thomas opinion, the text addresses the topic wholly as a matter of statutory interpretation. Working in that vein, it reads the statute as giving remarkably broad protection to industrial designs.

The key language of the statute emphasizes that it does not protect useful articles as such. Instead, it protects only “the design of a useful article,” and it protects that only if the “design incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” The key doctrinal question, then is the question of “separability,” or when the expressive aspects of the design are sufficiently “separable” from the utilitarian design.

Quoting the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “capable,” the court’s opinion states that for copyright protection to reach the design, “[t]he decisionmaker must determine that the separately identified feature has the capacity to exist apart from the utilitarian aspects of the article,” explaining that “[i]f the feature is not capable of existing as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work once separated from the useful article, then it was not a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural feature of that article, but rather one of its utilitarian aspects.”

Pointing to the explicit protection for copyrighted works applied to useful objects, the court explains that the Copyright Act as a whole “makes clear that copyright protection extends to pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works regardless of whether they were created as free-standing art or as features of useful articles.” Thus, the court concludes, the ultimate question is whether a particular design “would have been eligible for copyright protection … had it originally been fixed in some tangible medium other than a useful article before being applied to a useful article.”

What the court does not state expressly in that part of its opinion is that the standard for determining whether a graphic work (for example) is copyrightable is minimal. Unlike patents, which require a notable step of inventiveness, the level of expressive spark necessary for copyright protection is quite low. So once the court has said that any design can gain copyright protection if it would be protectable if placed first on a piece of paper, it really has ensured that all but the subtlest graphic designs will be able to gain copyright protection.

The proof of the breadth of the court’s analysis comes a few pages later, when the court applies its test to the facts at hand to find that the designs were protectable. The sum of the court’s analysis is as follows:

Applying this test to the surface decorations on the cheerleading uniforms is straightforward. First, one can identify the decorations as features having pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities. Second, if the arrangement of colors, stripes, and chevrons … were separated from the uniform and applied in another medium – for example, on a painter’s canvas—they would qualify as “two-dimensional … works of … art.” And imaginatively removing the surface decorations from the uniform and applying them in another medium would not replicate the uniform itself.

To put it more bluntly, once we determine that the designs “hav[e] … graphic … qualities … [and could be] applied … on a painter’s canvas,” the test for copyrightability is met.

The remainder of the court’s opinion consists of a half-hearted dismissal of a variety of Star Athletica’s contrary arguments. At bottom, Star Athletica’s central contention is that copyright protection requires that the useful article “would remain equally useful” without the design features in question. Here, for example, the cheerleader’s uniform would be considerably less useful as a cheerleader’s uniform without the chevrons, stripes, and zigzags; what team dresses its cheerleaders in plain white tunics? That contention is fundamentally misguided, the court explains, because it rests on the assumption that copyright protection is limited to features that are “solely artistic.” Rather, the court explains, “[t]he focus of the separability inquiry is on the extracted features and not on any aspects of the useful article that remain after the imaginary extraction.” In the court’s view, the explicit extension of copyright protection to “applied art” necessarily contemplates copyright protection for expression that is at least in part utilitarian.

I am sure that my colleagues who study intellectual property will write at length for years to come about the doctrinal nuances of the court’s discussion of the separability requirement, which seems to me a marked shift from most of the prior treatments. What is most interesting on the face of the opinion, though, is the marked lack of concern for the problem Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted at the argument –  allowing copyright law to decimate the “knockoff” industry. The bulk of the briefing in and attention to this case emphasized the industrial policy questions affected by applying copyright law to industrial designs. For the justices, though, those concerns surface only in the dissenting opinion of Justice Stephen Breyer (joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy).

Recommended Citation: Ronald Mann, Opinion analysis: Court uses cheerleader uniform case to validate broad copyright in industrial designs, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 22, 2017, 9:31 PM),