Expanded copyright protection for useful articles? Bring it on!
The Supreme Court brought more clarity to when designs of useful articles are copyright elegible in Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc.
Varsity Brands owns several registered copyrights covering works made up of various combinations of chevrons, lines, curves, and colors. These works are used on various cheerleading uniforms that Varsity sells.
Star Athletica is a competitor that sold cheerleading uniforms using the same combinations. Varsity sued Star Athletica for infringing 5 of their copyrights in district court.
The district court granted summary judgment for Star Athletica. The district court reasoned that because the designs made the uniforms more readily identifiable as cheerleading uniforms that the designs were useful elements of useful articles—which made them ineligible for copyright protection. The Sixth Circuit reversed, finding that the patterns and designs by themselves were capable of existing independent of the uniforms—thus, the designs were copyright eligible. Star Athletica appealed.
The Supreme Court affirmed the Sixth Circuit. It also clarified the rule for determining when an artistic feature on a useful article is eligible for copyright protection:
"We hold that an artistic feature of 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 in some other medium if imagined separately from the useful article."
Critically, the Court clarified that the separability is conceptual—not physical, as some courts had previously required. Hence, the Court concluded that it did not matter that Varsity's designs enhanced the usefulness of its uniforms as cheerleading uniforms. What mattered was that the designs were capable of existing as a copyrightable work in a different medium.
After Star Athletica, it is clear that artistic features of useful-article designs can be protected even if the underlying useful article would be rendered useless by the separation. So producers of useful articles—for example, clothing, purses, accessories, and medical devices—now have an added tool to protect their designs. Those elements that can be successfully described as artistic—even if they have some utility with respect to the the useful article—can be protected by copyright.