The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether stripes, chevrons, zigzags, color blocks, and other design elements in a cheerleading uniform can be copyrighted.
The Court will hear an appeal from Star Athletica, LLC who is defending a lawsuit brought by Varsity Brands LLC, the world’s largest cheerleading-apparel company. Varsity Brands is alleging that Star Athletica copied five of their proprietary designs.
Varsity Brands has registered copyrights for multiple graphic designs that appear on their cheerleading uniforms and warm-ups they sell. Star Athletica also sells cheerleading gear bearing graphic designs that, according to Varsity Brands, are substantially similar to the designs for which Varsity Brands has valid copyrights.
Star Athletica claims that Varsity Brand’s copyrights are invalid because the designs at issue are unprotectable “design[s] of…useful article[s].”
Under federal law, a design can be copyrighted if it is separable from a product’s utilitarian or useful aspects. Essentially, the U.S. Supreme Court has to decide where the functional design of a cheerleading uniform ends and the graphic design begins. Star Athletica’s main argument is that the colorful designs of the uniforms are an inseparable part of the uniforms because they identify the wearer as a cheerleader.
The issue to be decided by the Court has come up in various cases around the country, all with different outcomes. Public Knowledge, a non-profit organization that promotes freedom of expression, an open Internet, and access to affordable creative works, said in a brief opposing Varsity Brand, “that a costume replica may be noninfringing at a San Diego convention but infringing in New York” due to the inconsistencies. The Supreme Court will attempt to come up with a nationwide standard to determine whether clothing designs can be copyrighted.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the nine-month term that starts in October.