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Supreme Court to Hear Copyright Case

Copyright cases rarely make it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. However, the Palm Beach Post reports that the nation’s highest court has agreed to hear an appeal in the case of Varsity Brands inc vs Star Athletica. The case, which involves a company’s desire to copyright cheerleading uniforms, originated out of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments are expected to take place early next fall.

The Case

Varsity Brands is a company that both designs and manufactures athletic wear. One of their major product lines includes high school and college cheerleading uniforms. Varsity claims that their cheerleading uniforms use many different original design patterns and original design concepts. Varsity received copyright protection for some of their two-dimensional cheerleading uniform patterns. The company then sued a competitor, Star Athletica, for allegedly selling cheerleading uniforms which included extremely similar patterns. Star countered that they did not violate Varsity’s copyright protections because the designs in question were ‘not copyrightable’. Star argued that not copyright protection should be granted on the grounds that the designs were entirely ‘functional’. A lower court agreed with Star and dismissed the lawsuit, but the Sixth Circuit Court reversed that opinion, and held that the designs were entitled to copyright protection. The Supreme Court will now need to clarify the issue.

Copyright Protection: Defining Functionality

The key issue in this case is what exactly constitutes ‘functionality’. In order to qualify for copyright protection, a functional object must incorporate design elements that can be wholly separated from that object’s functional elements. For example, you could not seek copyright protection for the brim of a baseball. That is a functional aspect of the hat, it protects eyes from the sun. In this case, the lower court and the Sixth Circuit split on what exactly makes a cheerleading uniform functional. The majority opinion on the Sixth Circuit was that the functional aspects of a cheerleading uniform are:

  • The fact that is covers the body as clothing;
  • The freedom of movement it provided;
  • Ability to keep away sweat;
  • Durability; and
  • Other features which allowed the cheerleaders to perform better physically.

Under that interpretation, design elements can easily be separated from functionality. Therefore, those design elements may qualify for copyright protection. However, the lower, and a dissenting justice on the sixth circuit, found that one of the key functional aspects of cheerleading uniform is that it quickly and obviously identifies a cheerleader as a cheerleader. Therefore, under that alternative interpretation, the design elements are deeply, and inseparably, intertwined with the functionality of the uniform. This case demonstrates just how complex some copyright litigation cases can become. Copyright protection can be critically important to the viability of a business. If an issue arises, companies should always get their copyright case in the hands of an experienced attorney as soon as possible.

Contact Our Office Today

The experienced West Palm Beach copyright litigation team at Pike & Lustig, LLP can help your business with any intellectual property issues. If your business is involved in copyright litigation, or you have any questions about copyright law, please do not hesitate to contact our team today. Initial legal consultations are free of charge.

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