December 01, 2016
On October 31, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. Varsity Brands, Inc. designs and manufactures clothing and accessories for use in various athletic activities, including cheerleading. Design concepts for the clothing incorporate many elements but do not consider the functionality of the final clothing. Varsity received copyright registration for the two-dimensional artwork of the designs at issue in this case, which were very similar to ones that Star Athletica, LLC was advertising. Varsity sued Star and alleged, among other claims, that Star violated the Copyright Act. Star countered that Varsity had made fraudulent representations to the Copyright Office. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. Star argued that Varsity did not have valid copyrights because the designs were for “useful articles” and cannot be separated from the uniforms themselves, all of which tends to make an article ineligible for copyright. Varsity argued that the copyrights were valid and had been infringed. The district court granted summary judgment for Star and held that the designs were integral to the functionality of the uniform. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, however, and held that the uniforms Varsity designed were copyrightable.
The question now before the U.S. Supreme Court asks what the appropriate test is to determine when a feature of a useful article is protectable under section 101 of the Copyright Act.
To discuss the case, we have Zvi Rosen, who is an adjunct professor at New York Law School.