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“Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands”

Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States 22 March 2017 – Case No. 15-866

  1. I.

    JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

  2. 1.

    Respondents Varsity Brands …, design, make, and sell cheerleading uniforms. Respondents have obtained or acquired more than 200 U.S. copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs appearing on the surface of their uniforms and other garments. … Petitioner Star Athletica … also markets and sells cheerleading uniforms. Respondents sued petitioner for infringing their copyrights in the five designs.

  3. 2.

    The Copyright Act … establishes a special rule for copyrighting a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work incorporated into a “useful article,” which is defined as “an article having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information.” … The statute does not protect useful articles as such. Rather, “the design of a useful article” is “considered a pictorial, graphical, or sculptural work only if, and only to the extent that, such 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.” [17 U.S.C. §101] Courts, the Copyright Office, and commentators have described the analysis undertaken to determine whether a feature can be separately identified from, and exist independently of, a useful article as “separability.” In this case, our task is to determine whether the arrangements of lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes appearing on the surface of respondents’ cheerleading uniforms are eligible for copyright protection as separable features of the design of those cheerleading uniforms.

  4. 3.

    Respondents argue that “[s]eparability is only implicated when a [pictorial, graphic, or sculptural] work is the ‘design of a useful article.’” … They contend that the surface decorations in this case are “two-dimensional graphic designs that appear on useful articles,” but are not themselves designs of useful articles. … Consequently, the surface decorations are protected two-dimensional works of graphic art without regard to any separability analysis under §101. … Under this theory, two-dimensional artistic features on the surface of useful articles are “inherently separable.'” … This argument is inconsistent with the text of §101. The statute requires separability analysis for any “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” incorporated into the “design of a useful article.” … And the statute expressly defines “[p]ictorial, graphical, and sculptural works” to include “two-dimensional … works of … art.” The statute thus provides that the “design of a useful article” can include two-dimensional “pictorial” and “graphic” features, and separability analysis applies to those features just as it does to three-dimensional “sculptural” features.

  5. 4.

    We must now decide when a feature incorporated into a useful article “can be identified separately from” and is “capable of existing independently of” “the utilitarian aspects” of the article. This is not a free-ranging search for the best copyright policy, but rather “depends solely on statutory interpretation.” Mazer v. Stein, 347 U.S. 201, 214 (1954).

  6. 5.

    The statute provides that a “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural featur[e]” incorporated into the “design of a useful article” is eligible for copyright protection if it (1) “can be identified separately from,” and (2) is “capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” §101. The first requirement – separate identification – is not onerous. The decisionmaker need only be able to look at the useful article and spot some two- or three-dimensional element that appears to have pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities. … The independent-existence requirement is ordinarily more difficult to satisfy. The decisionmaker must determine that the separately identified feature has the capacity to exist apart from the utilitarian aspects of the article. … In other words, the feature must be able to exist as its own pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work as defined in §101 once it is imagined apart from the useful article. If 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.

  7. 6.

    In sum, a feature of the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright if, when identified and imagined apart from the useful article, it would qualify as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or when fixed in some other tangible medium. 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, shapes, stripes, and chevrons on the surface of the cheerleading uniforms 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,” §101. And imaginatively removing the surface decorations from the uniforms and applying them in another medium would not replicate the uniform itself. Indeed, respondents have applied the designs in this case to other media of expression – different types of clothing – without replicating the uniform. … The decorations are therefore separable from the uniforms and eligible for copyright protection.

  8. II.

    JUSTICE GINSBURG, concurring in the judgment.

    I concur in the Court’s judgment but not in its opinion. Unlike the majority, I would not take up in this case the separability test appropriate under 17 U.S.C. §101. Consideration of that test is unwarranted because the designs at issue are not designs of useful articles. Instead, the designs are themselves copyrightable pictorial or graphic works reproduced on useful articles.

  9. III.

    JUSTICE BREYER, with whom JUSTICE KENNEDY joins, dissenting.

    I do not agree that the designs that Varsity Brands, Inc., submitted to the Copyright Office are eligible for copyright protection. … If we ask the “separateness” question correctly, the answer here is not difficult to find. … Can the design features in Varsity’s pictures exist separately from the utilitarian aspects of a dress? … Looking at all five of Varsity’s pictures, I do not see how one could conceptualize the design features in a way that does not picture, not just artistic designs, but dresses as well. … The esthetic elements on which Varsity seeks protection exist only as part of the uniform design – there is nothing to separate out but for dress-shaped lines that replicate the cut and style of the uniforms. Hence, each design is not physically separate, nor is it conceptually separate, from the useful article it depicts, namely, a cheerleader’s dress. They cannot be copyrighted.

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Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc., et al. 17 U.S.C., § 101. “Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands”. IIC 48, 600–602 (2017).

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  • Copyright law
  • Design
  • Useful article