Supreme Court Rules Uniform Design Elements May Be Copyrighted

© Reuters. A general view of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington

By Lawrence Hurley

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that basic elements in cheerleading uniform designs deserve copyright protection, handing the top U.S. apparel manufacturer a victory in a decision with serious implications for the cheerleading industry. Fashion.

The justices ruled 6-2 to uphold a 2015 lower court ruling allowing a lawsuit from Varsity Brands Inc [LEOGRV.UL], the dominant cheerleading uniform maker, accusing its smaller rival Star Athletica LLC of infringing on five of its designs to continue.

In the majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas and together with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, the superior court presented a two-part test to determine whether the design elements justified the protection of copyright.

The judges said that “pictorial, graphic or sculptural features” must be “separable” from the design of a utilitarian object. Features should also merit copyright protection as a separate work.

Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with the majority decisions, but said she would not have applied a “separability” test. Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy disagreed, saying that the elements could not be separated from the design.

The closely watched case focused on whether the stripes, zigzags and chevrons that characterize cheerleading uniforms may be copyrighted, as Varsity argues, or are so fundamental to the purpose of the garment that they should not deserve such legal protection. Without such embellishments, a cheerleader uniform could look like the common “little black dress,” Star Athletica argued.

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