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Copyright law protects design elements on cheerleader uniforms

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that design features on cheerleader uniforms may be eligible for Copyright protection. In addition to resolving a current dispute between Varsity Brands, Inc. and Star Athletica, L.L.C., the decision also will have future implications on Copyright and fashion law.

The current lawsuit was filed by Varsity Brands, who claimed that Star Athletica infringed on their Copyrights for five designs that appear on the surface of their garments. The designs in question are comprised of a combination of elements, such as chevrons, lines, curves, stripes, angles and diagonals.

Most fashion is not protected under the Copyright Act because of its "intrinsic utilitarian function." Design elements, however, have always presented a layer of complexity. According to Section 101 of the Copyright Act, protection is provided to designs that qualify as "pictorial, graphic or sculptural work either on its own or in some other medium if imagined separately from the useful article."

In Varsity Brands vs. Star Athletica, a determination needed to be made whether the particular design elements on the cheerleading uniforms qualify as a separate, standalone work. The initial ruling in trial court was that the designs were not "physically or conceptually" separable from the garments. In the appeal, the Sixth Circuit court disagreed and reversed the ruling with a 2-1 majority. The case then went before the Supreme Court, who ruled 6-2 in favor of Varsity Brand's copyright claim.

The Supreme Court decision will most likely be embraced by the fashion industry as recognition that design elements can be eligible for Copyright protection. In addition to fabric design, other elements such as appliqués and patterns of buckles, beads, jewels, sequins and lace will now have similar protection if they can be perceived as standalone artwork.

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