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Supreme Court Uses Cheerleading Case to Support Copyright Protections for Design Features on Useful Articles

There is a fine line between a regular object that is used for practical purposes and one that has its own artistic value with copyrightable properties. One would generally expect there to be a large buffer zone between a chair and a chair with copyrightable designs such as a specific floral pattern. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Therefore, courts are forced to distinguish between useful articles with only practical characteristics and ones that are copyrightable.

How Does Copyright Law Apply to Useful Articles?

A “useful article” is an object that is designed for practical use rather than attractive purposes. Common examples of useful articles include chairs, silverware and lighting fixtures. It is important to recognize that copyright law does not protect the mechanical or practical aspects of these types of work. However, it may protect a pictorial, graphic or sculptural authorship on the useful article that can be identified separately from the practical aspects of the object.

To determine if certain features are copyrightable, the courts use the “conceptual separability” test. This test looks at whether an article’s aesthetic design and its utilitarian (practical) elements are separable.

Copyright Protections at the Supreme Court: Star Athletica v. Varisty Brands

The question in the case Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. was whether a cheerleading uniform’s design was a separable, copyrightable design or whether it served as part of the useful article that distinguished those wearing it as cheerleaders. The Varsity Brands’ design consisted of artwork depicting stripes, zigzags and color blocks on cheerleading uniforms. The company allegedly infringing on the copyright, Star Athletica, claimed that the designs were not conceptually separable from the function of “clothing the body in a way that evokes the concept of cheerleading.” See Varsity Brands, Inc. v. Star Athletica, LLC, No. 15-866.

The court created a five-factor test to determine conceptual separability. These factors aimed to determine several things, including:

  1. If the design was a pictorial, graphic or sculptural work
  2. If the design was a useful article
  3. What were the practical use aspects of the article
  4. Could those aspects be identified separately from the article’s aesthetic aspects
  5. Whether the aesthetic features could exist independently of the practical use elements

After using the five-factor test, the court determined that the practical use of cheerleading uniforms was to “cover the body, wick away moisture and withstand the rigors of athletic movement.” Their purpose did not include to identify the wearers as cheerleaders.

The court also ruled that there were pictorial and graphic works on the uniforms. However, they were not part of the practical functions of the uniform and were therefore conceptually separable. Their reasoning behind this was that to deem the graphic design as part of the practical use would “render nearly all artwork unprotectable,” which they were trying to prevent from being the case. From there, the court determined that the design on the uniforms could exist and be identified separately. Therefore, it was protected under copyright law.

Contact Our Los Angeles Intellectual Property and Copyright Lawyers Today

While you may not have a large stake in who owns the copyright to a cheerleading uniform, this case did set a precedent for when a design on a useful article is copyrightable. If you believe that someone is infringing on your copyright for any reason, then you should consult our Los Angeles intellectual property and copyright lawyers to learn your rights. Contact Yadegar, Minoofar & Soleymani LLP today at (310) 499-0140 to schedule a free initial evaluation. You can also contact us by filling out our confidential contact form. We look forward to hearing from you soon!