Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Varsity Brands in its case against Star Athletica. It was a decision that upholds federal copyright law and has wider implications for the fashion industry.
The ruling came five months after the court began oral arguments on the case, voting 6-2 to back Varsity Brands’ lawsuit against Star Athletica for appropriating its striped chevron uniform design. The decision asserts that the company has the right to maintain intellectual property of its uniform and prevent further duplications.
“The Copyright Act of 1976 makes ‘pictorial, graphic or sculptural features’ of the ‘design of a useful article’ eligible for copyright protection as artistic works if those features ‘can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article,’” the ruling states.
Varsity Brand’s registered designs, now protected under copyright
In essence, this establishes that 2D patterns and designs are viewed as independent artwork protected by law. The ruling, however, does not protect copyright on the 3D physical cut of a garment, meaning silhouettes can be duplicated. (For example, the classic “little black dress” would not be allowed to be copyrighted.) While the ruling makes strides in protecting design, Jed Ferdinand, founder and senior managing partner of law firm Ferdinand IP, said it’s inability to quell copycatting altogether leaves more to be desired for the fashion industry.
“This decision is clearly a step in the right direction,” he said. “Does it solve the problem of complication in the fashion industry? Absolutely not. I don’t see it as a fundamental change in fashion law; it’s a good step, but not a transformative event.”
He added that the case was effective in spurring dialogue about the business implications of such legal matters, noting Justices Stephen Breyer’s and Sonia Sotomayor’s comments about the fact that preventing copycatting can actually be detrimental to consumers: They will no longer be permitted to shop low-cost alternatives.
“You’re killing knockoffs with copyright,” Sotomayor said during oral arguments in November. “You haven’t been able to do it with trademark law. You haven’t been able to do it with patent designs. We are now going to use copyright law to kill the knockoff industry. I don’t know that that’s bad. I’m just saying.”
Regardless, the decision was a small victory for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which filed an amicus brief in November on behalf of Varsity Brands, claiming that by ruling against the company, the Court would foster an environment that makes designers “defenseless against copyists.”
“The Supreme Court’s decision appears to be a reaffirmation of existing law that protects the prints and other elements that are found on the surface of fashion designs,” CFDA president Steven Kolb said in a statement. “We are pleased the Supreme Court did not restrict existing copyright protection nor expand it in a way that would constrain competition in our industry.”