02 November, 2016

Before the Supreme Court - Copyright Protection of the Design of Uniforms in the US Court of Appeal

In the light of the pending US Supreme Court decision regarding copyright protection in the design of cheerleaders' uniforms, this writer thought it would be good to set the scene for the decision by discussing the decision handed down by the Court of Appeal. The judiciary rarely takes on design copyright cases, as often their value is negligible or protection is not even sought (especially in the US where copyright registration is an important part of IP).

The case of Varsity Brands Inc. v Star Athletica LLC dealt with the design of a cheerleader uniform, comprising of several different designs, incorporating various colors that divide the uniform into specific shapes and segments (visible here). The designs themselves were of non-functional nature, and were only intended to be of aesthetic value. The original works were produced and sold by Varsity Brands, who noticed that a competitor, Star Athletica, also sold similar outfits in competition with Varsity's uniforms, and took the company to court for copyright infringement and a number of other civil claims in competition.

The Court of Appeal first took on the issue of whether Star Athletica has infringed Varsity Brands' copyright in the uniforms; the designs for which have been successfully registered at the US Copyright Office. After lengthy discussions, the Court did agree that successful registration at the Copyright Office could offer prima facie, although rebuttable, protection and acceptance of copyright in a given work. Star Athletica did, however, argue that the designs were in themselves useful article, and thus not protectable by copyright. The designs therefore would need to be "…identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article" for copyright protection to be afforded.
What amounts to a useful article is an article that has a utilitarian function that is not there merely to convey the appearance of the article (i.e. for aesthetic reasons). Following the above, the Court established that this would be determined by a two-prong test: "…first, whether the design for which the author seeks copyright protection is a 'design of a useful article,' and if so, second, whether the design of the useful article 'incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the [useful] article'".
Alan's Halloween outfit was totally non-functional
The Court then turned to the first prong of the test on separability, meaning that the article would not be a useful one, but only conveys the items appearance.  As illustrated by the Court's discussion, both appellate and first instance courts have struggled to formulate a concise and uniform approach in determining what would amount to a 'useful article'. The Court moved on to applying what they considered to be the correct approach, which would be applying a number of questions based on the Copyright Act itself. These questions are effectively to ask whether the design is "…a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work", and if so, whether the design is a useful article within the definition above. The Court would then have to ask "…[w]hat are the utilitarian aspects of the useful article", which can include several aspects (for example, aesthetic, functional and non-functional elements).
Once the Court has identified the relevant utilitarian aspects of the design, it would then finally move onto assessing whether "…the viewer of the design [can] identify pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features separately from... the utilitarian aspects of the useful article", and if these features could exist separately from the design itself (i.e. are removable from the design and don't impact its functionality). If either one, or both, of the final questions fails, the design is not protected by copyright.
The Court subsequently moved onto its consideration of the copyright protection for Varsity Brands' designs. They quickly answered the first two questions in the affirmative, expanding on the second question that the designs, represented in sketches of the uniforms, have an "intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of [clothing] or to convey information". They then set out the particular utilitarian aspects of the designs, which were to "cover the body, wick away moisture, and withstand the rigors of athletic movements". The Court rejected Star Athletica's assertion that the uniforms, through a decorative function, would not be copyrightable, as, rightfully so, this would cause artworks and other similar works to not be protected by copyright by virtue of their decorative function
Finally, the Court sought to answer the final two questions. In determining the separability of the pictorial, graphic or sculptural features (particularly the arrangement of stripes, chevrons, zigzags, and color-blocking), the Court saw that they could indeed be separated, as they do not enhance the uniform's functionality, and the uniforms remain fully identifiable even in the absence of this stylisation due to its distinctive shape. Additionally, purchasers would be able to distinguish each style from each other, and choose accordingly, making the designs separate and individual and therefore protectable. Even so, would they still exist independently of the utilitarian aspects of the uniforms, even if separable? The Court said yes, as the features could be incorporated into a number of garment styles, even if they are not meant for cheerleaders (meaning the designs are transferable), and do not affect the uniform's functionality for those purposes even if used or not. Following the answers to the questions the Court ultimately determined that the designs were copyrightable.

The Court distinguished this from the design of a dress, which, through its shape rather than a mere graphical addition adorning its surface, as its shape, cut and other features are "…inextricably connected with the utilitarian aspects of clothing" and thus can't be identified separately. This illustrates the difference in protectability for fabric designs and dress designs.


As is clear the US courts desperately need a unifying precedent to determine what the correct test is in relation to useful articles and the extent of copyright protection thereof. The Supreme Court's decision is still forthcoming, and this writer will be curious to see whether they follow the Court of Appeal's test, or formulate a different one entirely.

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