Varsity Brands Wins Supreme Court Copyright Case

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In a 51-page majority opinion, justice Clarence Thomas wrote that since the uniforms-similar to a t-shirt, paper towels, car, or other useful real-world items -serve a function, they can not be copyrighted. The appeals court fashioned its own test and found that the design features of Varsity Brands' cheerleader uniform played no role in the overall function of the article as a cheerleading uniform, and the elements were separable from the utilitarian aspects of the uniform and thus eligible for copyright protection.

Applying this test to the surface decorations on the cheerleading uniforms is straightforward.

The closely watched case centered on whether the stripes, zigzags and chevrons that typify cheerleader uniforms can be copyrighted, as Varsity contends, or are so fundamental to the goal of the garment that they should not deserve such legal protection. Indeed, respondents [Varsity Brands] have applied the designs in this case to other media of expression-different types of clothing-without replicating the uniform. (Case No. 15-866), the court ruled 6-2 that Varsity Brands' uniform designs at issue may be copyrighted. Without the decorations, a uniform "looks exactly like the ubiquitous little black dress", Star stated in its brief.

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The Supreme Court affirmed. Third, the Court disagreed with the petitioner that Congress' refusal to include a statutory provision permitting limited protection of industrial designs had any relevance or persuasive value.

Jeff Webb, founder and chairman of Varsity Brands, said in a statement, "Today's favorable ruling represents the culmination of years of hard work to protect our original design, and we are of course gratified by the outcome and what it means for our business".

In the majority opinion, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas on behalf of five justices, the Court first turned to the language of Section 101 of the Copyright Act itself to expound on the meaning of the two separability requirements with respect to useful articles.