High Court Backs Copyright Protection for Cheerleader Uniform Designs

US Supreme Court judges ruled 6-2 that cheerleader outfits can be protected

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee had concluded that the respondent's designs did not qualify for copyright protection because they served the function of identifying the garments as cheerleading uniforms, and thus the designs were impossible to separate from the utilitarian function of the uniform.

Star Athletica, which was founded by a former Varsity employee and sells similar uniforms for less, disagreed. The suit was brought to determine the proper test for implementing "separate-identification and independent-existence requirements" as mandated by USC 17 § 101 [text].

Jeff Webb, founder and chairman of Varsity Brands, said in a statement, "Today's favorable ruling represents the culmination of years of hard work to protect our original design, and we are of course gratified by the outcome and what it means for our business".

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The feature is also eligible for copyright protection if it would qualify as a protectable 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.

"First, one can identify the decorations as features having pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities", Thomas wrote. Accordingly, the decorations were found separable from the uniforms and eligible for copyright protection.

Varsity Brands won copyrights for five particular designs on paper, featuring stripes, chevrons, zigzags, and color blocks arranged on its basic uniforms.

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Finally, the majority rejected three arguments raised by the petitioner. "The fashion industry barely has protection over fabric prints, lace patterns, jewelry, belt buckles, or handbag clasps", says Scafidi. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, opined that "the uniform design met the [separability] test of being able to exist as its own pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work".

Copyrightable works of art, or just pictures of cheerleader uniforms?

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