Under the U.S. Copyright Act, a “useful article” such as a chair, a dress, or a uniform may obtain copyright protection, but only for elements that “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” 17 U.S.C. § 101. For apparel, this generally means that the overall design of a garment is not protected by copyright, but certain ornamental features (such as a pattern woven into the fabric) may be protectable. In practice, the Copyright Act protects fabric designs, not dress designs. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to tackle this uncertain area, granting certiorari in Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. In that case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2 – 1 that the design features of Varsity Brands’ cheerleader uniform (e.g. “stripes, chevrons, color blocks, and zigzags”) were separable from the utilitarian aspects of the uniform, and thus eligible for copyright protection. Varsity Brands, Inc. v. Star Athletica, LLC, 799 F.3d 468 (6th Cir. 2015).
The majority opinion identified nine specific approaches plus hybrids that various courts and the Copyright Office have formulated over the years to analyze how copyrightable design features can be separated from utilitarian elements, and the extent to which design features can achieve copyright protection. Id. at 484-87. The majority then employed its own hybrid five-part test grounded in the text of the Copyright Act, finding that the designs at issue played no role in the overall function of the article as a cheerleading uniform. The majority broadly defined the function of a cheerleading uniform: “to cover the body, permit free movement, and wick moisture.” Id. at 492. The dissent, meanwhile, took a more “particularized” view of the function of the uniform. Id. at 496. It pointed out that the design elements at issue do serve a utilitarian function because they identify the wearer as a cheerleader and should therefore be afforded no protection under the Copyright Act. Id.
The dissent in Varsity Brands characterized the law of copyright protection for design elements of useful articles as “a mess.” Id. at 496-97. The consequences of this mess are significant for businesses with stakes in garment design. As the dissent observed, clarity is needed to alleviate the courts’ confusion and protect business interests. Id. The Supreme Court now has an opportunity to spell out a more consistent approach to the “metaphysical quandary” of design-functionality in garment copyright protection. Ideally, the Court will clarify the boundaries of copyright protection, and specify the appropriate factors for courts to weigh when separating expressive elements from utilitarian functions. Star Athletica’s opening brief is due around late June, and we will continue to monitor this case.