Something cheer for? Supreme Court to rule on clothing copyrights

In Business Organizations by Coolidge Wall

There are many questions when it comes to protecting certain elements of your business. Can you trademark your logo? Should you consider licensing agreements? How can you protect creative works?

In some cases, these difficult decisions about what you can and cannot do may already be made for you, thanks to intellectual property laws. However, these can be extraordinarily complicated. For instance, copyright laws regarding clothing are being put under the microscope by the U.S. Supreme Court in response to a case between two cheerleading clothing companies.

The case involves a large, well-established company, Varsity Brands, and a relatively new company, Star Athletica. Essentially, Varsity is arguing that their designs can be copyrighted because they are a textile design. Star Athletica is challenging that argument, maintaining elements of a cheerleader uniform are functional; therefore, they cannot be copyrighted.

At the crux of this argument is a larger issue involving clothing designs and whether they are expressive or functional. Broadly speaking, if clothing features are expressive and can exist separately from the “functional article,” they can be copyrighted.

In this case, it is the concept of functionality that has come under fire. A district court sided with Star Athletica and ruled that cheerleading costume designs cannot be copyrighted because they are functional for identification and construction purposes.

However, an appeals court reversed that decision, arguing that the designs are not essential to the actual clothing and therefore can be copyrighted.

Now the Supreme Court will hear the case. It will be interesting to see how the Court rules in this issue, as clothing design copyrights are a known pain point for parties in this industry.

Whether you operate a clothing or textile business or not, this case can be a good reminder that copyright laws — as well as patent and trademark laws — can be far more complicated than you realize. Rather than risk your business and/or ownership rights of certain materials, you can consult an attorney to assess your legal options for protection.

Source: Forbes, “Supreme Court Dives Into Copyright Fight Over Cheerleader Uniforms,” Daniel Fisher, May 2, 2016