Under federal law, the pictorial, graphic or sculptural features of the design of a useful article can be copyrighted if those features can be identified separately from and are capable of existing independently of the product's utilitarian aspects. The company had claimed that cheerleader uniforms sold by Star Athletica were "substantially similar" to its own.
The decision comes almost seven years after Varsity Brands, the leading American maker of the garments, first sued Star Athletica, a smaller rival, for infringing on five Varsity cheerleading uniform designs.
Varsity sued Star Athletica in 2010, asserting it had intentionally copied several Varsity designs. "And cheerleader uniforms are useful articles".
The closely watched case centered on whether the stripes, zigzags and chevrons that typify cheerleader uniforms can be copyrighted, as Varsity contends, or are so fundamental to the goal of the garment that they should not deserve such legal protection. But since Varsity Brand's designs can be conceptually separated from the uniforms and Varsity has done so, "the decorations are therefore separable from the uniforms and eligible for copyright protection".More news: Angelique Kerber ousted by Elena Vesnina in fourth round at Indian Wells
The Supreme Court ruling won't change anything for designers, she says, but does preserve the little protection they have come to rely on for their designs. The Court, however, expressly disclaimed any conclusion regarding whether the decorations were sufficiently original to qualify for copyright protection and further clarified that even if the decorations were copyrighted, the owner could not use such copyright to prohibit manufacture of any "cheerleading uniform of identical shape, cut, and dimensions".
Justice Ginsburg concurred with the majority, but would have found the designs to be copyrightable pictorial or graphics works that happened to be reproduced on useful articles - negating the need to parse the language of 17 U.S.C. § 101.
After losing a 2010 lawsuit, Varsity Brands eventually got a favorable ruling Wednesday as the highest court of appeal said the designs were protected.