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Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands (The Cheerleading Uniform Case)

Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands (The Cheerleading Uniform Case)

The question before the Court is when a feature
of a design of a useful article is protectable under the Copyright Act. Specifically what the Court is looking at
is whether the graphic design elements of the cheerleading forms at issue are separable
from the more utilitarian features of the uniforms themselves. Useful articles cannot be copyrighted, but
the design elements of useful articles may be copyrighted if they can be separated from
the useful article. The issue becomes most complicated when you’re
dealing with three-dimensional objects, where the actual physical characteristics of the
object may have some functional utility to the object, too. Varsity is saying this is really no different
than those situations where someone takes a famous painting and applies it to a t-shirt
or a canvas bag or a rug, and that what the Court should do is simply look at the graphic
designs that Varsity has registered with the Copyright Office and ignore the fact that
those are being applied to a cheerleading uniform in this case. Star Athletica, on the other hand, is saying
that this cheerleading uniform is not really a cheerleading uniform if it is separated
from the graphic design elements. The graphic design elements can be something
about the uniform and about the wear of the uniform, so the design itself is important
to the nature of the product. Varsity, in this instance, could very well
prevail on this issue of whether the graphic design that they’re claiming protection
for is separable and, therefore, eligible for copyright protection, but then lose on
the merits of the case because the design itself is not very original. So, I can have sympathy for people who look
at a two-dimensional design of a cheerleading uniform that incorporates zigzags and chevrons
and common elements like that and say, “well, there’s nothing particularly original here. How can somebody design a competing cheerleading
uniform without using these elements?” That’s something that the district court
should look at if the case is remanded back to the district court.

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