In just a few weeks, Piaggio – the Italian company manufacturing iconic Vespa scooters – obtained a double victory before Italian courts both under the intellectual property and the copyright perspectives.
Yesterday, in a decision that will be welcomed by the fashion industry, the United States Supreme Court ruled that certain design elements of cheerleader uniforms may be eligible for copyright protection. Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. The Court held that, “a feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated.” Justice Clarence Thomas authored the 6-2 majority opinion, addressing disagreement among lower courts as to the proper test for determining if certain design elements could ever qualify for copyright protection.
This case involved lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes on cheerleader uniforms. In finding that these elements could be covered by copyright, the appeals court below had identified nine different approaches that various courts and the Copyright Office had employed over the years to address “separability.” 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.
The Supreme Court affirmed. Applying § 101 of the Copyright Act, the Court found that the decorations on the uniforms at issue could be identified as having pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities, and the arrangement of the decorations could be placed in another medium (e.g. placed on a painter’s canvas) without replicating the uniforms themselves. Thus, the two-dimensional work of art fixed in the uniform fabric met both the separate-identification and independent-existence requirements of the statute. Importantly, the Court held only that the uniform elements are eligible for protection in concept; now the trial court must determine whether Varsity Brands’ specific lines, chevrons, and shapes are original enough to merit copyright protection.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred in the result, pointing out that the Court did not have to discuss the separability test at all because the designs at issue were not themselves useful articles, but rather standalone, two-dimensional pictorial and graphic works reproduced on a useful article. Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, dissented, arguing that even under the majority’s test, the designs cannot be perceived as separate from the cheerleading uniform.
Thus, although the majority offers some clarity about the proper approach to separability, the dissent demonstrates that analysis may yield divergent results. The decision is likely to be embraced by fashion industry leaders and other garment design stakeholders for its recognition that certain garment design elements may be protectable under the Copyright Act. K&L Gates will continue to monitor litigation in this area and provide updates.
A link to the opinion can be found here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-866_0971.pdf
It seems only fitting that with “Schoolies Week” around the corner, the Federal Circuit Court has delivered judgment in the matter of Weller & Anor v Smith  FCCA 2827 which relates to intellectual property rights and commercial reputations in the jelly wrestling products industry.
The matter relates to a dispute between the partnership of John Weller and Jake Weller trading as “Crazy Town Parties” and Ian Smith.
The Wellers trade in the party supply and party hire industry. One aspect of their business is the sale of a range of products, including a substance sold in crystalline form, that are used for jelly wrestling. The Wellers utilise a number of photos for marketing purpose in both digital and hardcopy formats including on the packaging of their jelly wrestling products.
On 31 October 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the ongoing dispute between Star Athletica LLC and Varsity Brands Inc, two major designers and manufacturers of cheerleading uniforms. In what could be considered a bizarre mash up of early 2000s films “Bring it On!” and “Legally Blonde”, the two companies are involved in a stoush as to whether or not the two-dimensional designs of coloured stripes and zig-zags that are applied to cheerleading uniforms can be protected under US copyright law. My U.S. colleagues John Cotter and Shamus Hyland previously discussed the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in this matter here.
It will come as no surprise to readers that U.S. and Australian laws differ in many respects and this is particularly the case when it comes to copyright and designs laws.
In Australia, fashion designers may have recourse to the Designs Act 2003 (Cth) and/or the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) depending on whether or not they are looking to protect two-dimensional (prints, images etc.) or three-dimensional (cut, shape, fit etc.) designs and how they intend to exploit the designs.
A recent decision on copyright infringement in building designs
On 13 October, Justice Beach of the Federal Court of Australia delivered his judgment in the case of Henley Arch v Lucky Homes & Ors, a copyright infringement case in respect of a project home design.
Mr and Mrs Mistrys were customers who, in 2013, went part way through the sales process with Henley Arch (Henley) for it to build them a house in accordance with its “Amalfi” design. The Mistrys paid Henley a deposit and plans were drawn up to build the house on the block that the Mistrys were purchasing. The Mistrys signed a standard Henley document acknowledging that Henley owned copyright in the plans and that the Mistrys were not entitled to use these (other than by building with Henley). While the Mistrys had initially wanted Henley’s “Avenue” façade option, after they learned that this would increase the price by about AUD10,000 they reverted to the standard option for the facade.
The Mistrys did not sign a final contract with Henley and instead approached Lucky Homes with the Henley plan (which featured Henley’s title block and copyright notice). Lucky Homes agreed to build the home for the Mistrys with the “Avenue” façade they preferred for about AUD10,000 less than Henley’s price (that is, Henley’s price for the house with the standard façade). The Mistrys ultimately engaged Lucky Homes, and it engaged a draftsperson to create a plan for the Mistrys’ house from the Henley plan, with a number of minor changes.
On 31 May 2016, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued its decision on the much-discussed issue of the requirements for a “communication to the public” in copyright infringement cases. It provided new guidelines on the interpretation of the article 3(1) of the InfoSoc Directive and article 8(2) of the Rental and Lending Rights Directive. The opportunity was given by the Regional Court of Cologne (Germany) that made a request for a preliminary ruling in the proceeding Reha Training v. GEMA, concerning the TV broadcast by means of TV sets on the premises of a rehabilitation centre. According to GEMA (the German copyright collection society), Reha Training failed to request permission and to pay the due royalties for communicating to the public TV programmes which belong to its repertoire.
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.
The United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas recently examined the scope of copyright protection for role-playing card games, parsing the use of parallel themes and characters. The court ultimately granted summary judgment in favor of a distributor accused of infringing a role-playing card game by creating a substantially similar game, but in a parallel (different) setting. This case provides guidance to companies that create games in traditional or digital media, clarifying where the line should be drawn between the protectable expressive aspects of a game and unprotectable rules or underlying ideas and concepts. The court’s decision also provides a helpful illustration of the differing standards applied to motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment.