Law & Courts

High Court Backs Copyright Protection for Cheerleader Uniform Designs

By Mark Walsh — March 23, 2017 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday gave a V for victory to the dominant provider of cheerleader uniforms for schools, colleges, and spirit teams, ruling that some of its uniform designs were protected under federal copyright law.

The losing squad was an upstart company, Star Athletica, that was sued for copyright infringement by Varsity Brands, the market leader in the cheerleader-uniform industry.

Star Athletica has claimed that Varsity Brands copyrights hundreds of designs and photos of cheerleader uniforms, then sues competitors for infringement over similar designs. That drives up the prices of cheerleader uniforms for schools and families, the upstart says.

If that’s true, prices for such uniforms may be heading upwards. In Star Athletica LLC v. Varsity Brands Inc. (Case No. 15-866), the court ruled 6-2 that Varsity Brands’ uniform designs at issue may be copyrighted.

The issue in the case is rather technical, dealing with what legal test courts should use to determine whether a component of a useful article such as a garment is eligible for copyright protection.

Varsity Brands won copyrights for five particular designs on paper, featuring stripes, chevrons, zigzags, and color blocks arranged on its basic uniforms. The actual uniforms are customized with school names and logos.

Star Athletica, which was sued by Varsity, argued that its competitor’s copyrights were invalid because the designs were necessary to the uniforms’ essential function of identifying the wearer as a cheerleader.

Writing for the majority on the Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas said an artistic feature of the design of a useful article may be copyrighted if it “can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article” and “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.”

Varsity Brands’ designs met that test, Thomas said. His opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred in the outcome but wrote a separate opinion.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in a dissent joined by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, said “the pictures on which Varsity seeks protection do not simply depict designs. They depict clothing. They depict the useful articles of which the designs are inextricable parts.”

“And Varsity cannot obtain copyright protection that would give [it] the power to prevent others from making those useful uniforms, any more than Van Gogh can copyright comfortable old shoes by painting their likeness,” Breyer said. He appended to his dissent a copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s work “Shoes.”

Besides the case’s implications for cheerleader uniforms and, more broadly, the garment industry, some education-related groups had filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Star Athletica.

One such brief, filed by the American Library Association and other groups, said more expansive copyright protection results in “costs and complexities” for educators, forcing them into a “permissions maze” that can make it more difficult to use content for classroom instruction.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Federal Judge Denies Parents' Suit to Block Florida's Ban on School Mask Mandates
The parents argued that their children, due to health conditions, were at particular risk if any of their peers attend school without masks.
David Goodhue, Miami Herald
3 min read
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban.
Marta Lavandier/AP
Law & Courts Texas Attorney General Sues More School Districts That Require Masks
The Texas attorney general's office anticipates filing more lawsuits against districts flouting the governor’s order. Will Dallas be next?
Talia Richman, The Dallas Morning News
4 min read
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2020.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2020.
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP
Law & Courts Can They Do That? Questions Swirl Around COVID-19 School Vaccine Mandates
With at least one large school district adopting a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, here is a look at the legal landscape for such a requirement.
5 min read
Image of a band-aid being placed on the arm.
iStock/Getty
Law & Courts High Court Justice Rejects Student's Bid to Block Removal Over Sexual Harassment Claim
Justice Elena Kagan denied a California student's effort to return to school after his 'emergency' suspension under Title IX regulations.
3 min read
The Supreme Court in Washington as seen on Oct. 7, 2020. After more than a decade in which the Supreme Court moved gradually toward more leniency for minors convicted of murder, the justices have moved the other way. The high court ruled 6-3 Thursday along ideological lines against a Mississippi inmate sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for fatally stabbing his grandfather when the defendant was 15 years old. The case is important because it marks a break with the court’s previous rulings and is evidence of the impact of a newly more conservative court.
The U.S. Supreme Court as seen on Oct. 7, 2020.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP