Varsity Brands carefully guards its products with copyrights in several of the 2-D artistic designs that appear on its uniforms, as well as on other apparel. When competing athletic clothing manufacturer Star Athletica began copying Varsity’s designs, Varsity turned to Goodwin for a legal remedy.
Varsity sued Star Athletica for infringing five of its copyrights. The federal Copyright Act allows designers to obtain a copyright in any “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work.” An exception applies when the work “is the design of a useful article.” Star argued that the uniforms were a “useful article,” and the colorful designs cannot be separated from the uniform, so the copyrights are invalid. The district court agreed with Star, but the court of appeals ruled for Varsity. The Supreme Court took the case “to resolve widespread disagreement over the proper test” for separability under the Copyright Act.
The Supreme Court voted decisively (6-2) in favor of Goodwin client Varsity Brands, ruling that copyright protection is not undermined even though a design may follow the outline of a cheerleading uniform (or a guitar, or a ceiling panel) on which it appears. The Court held that the test is simply whether the design feature would qualify as a copyright-eligible work on its own, when imagined apart from the useful article. Here, the designs can be pictured on a painter’s canvas, or on a T-shirt; they are separable from the uniform fabric on which they appear. The Court’s clarification on a murky area of copyright law was met with cheers from the fashion industry and other designers who can be expected to look to copyright law to protect their products from knock-offs.