While most business owners and executives are aware of the value of protecting their trademarks and patents that they use in their businesses, many assume that copyright protection exists primarily for artists and their artistic expressions. However, prudent business owners should carefully analyze their portfolio of intellectual property and consider the value of registering copyrights for their assets in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in In Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc.
Generally speaking, US copyright law protects original expression of ideas in various forms and media. It encourages individuals and businesses to produce original works of authorship by rewarding them with certain exclusive rights to profit from their efforts. Such rights are given for a limited time and subject to various exceptions and limitations, such as when original designs are incorporated into useful articles.
Varsity Brands, Inc. and its affiliates (Varsity), a group of companies that are in the business of designing and manufacturing cheerleading uniforms and other athletic apparel, sued their competitor Star Athletica, LLC (Star), claiming that Star infringed on some of Varsity’s copyrighted designs. The designs at issue appear on the surface of cheerleading uniforms and other apparel, and mainly consist of combinations of lines, colors, shapes, stripes and chevrons. Star argued that such designs are not copyrightable because those aesthetic features of the uniforms merged with the functional purpose of the uniforms.
The Supreme Court recently disagreed and ruled for Varsity, holding that a feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three- dimensional work of art separate from the useful article; and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work, either on its own or fixed in some tangible medium of expression, if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated.
Without copyright protection, Varsity would likely have been unable to protect the aesthetic aspects of its cheerleading apparel in question and prevent other businesses from copying its designs since such apparel aesthetics would not generally be eligible for patent or trademark protection. This decision has given the greenlight for businesses to register copyrights for original design features that are incorporated into their useful products with the U.S. Copyright Office and for courts to acknowledge and protect such copyrights from any infringers.
The case is In Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., 137 S. Ct. 1002 (March 22, 2017).
Kelly Iffrig is an associate at Carmody MacDonald P.C. and concentrates her practice in business law, banking and finance law, emerging businesses, and real estate law. Kelly is dedicated to helping startup businesses with growth issues, financing matters, and other general corporate matters.
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