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Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc.

Supreme Court of the United States

October 31, 2016, Argued; March 22, 2017, Decided

No. 15-866.


 [*1007]  [****1005]  Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.

] Congress has provided copyright protection for original works of art, but not for industrial designs. The line between art and industrial design, however, is often difficult to draw. This is particularly true when an industrial design incorporates artistic elements. Congress has afforded limited protection for these artistic elements by providing that “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” of the “design of a useful article” are eligible for copyright protection as artistic works if those features “can be identified  [**364]  separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” 17 U. S. C. §101.

We granted certiorari to resolve widespread disagreement over the proper test for implementing §101’s separate identification and independent-existence requirements. 578 U. S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 1823, 194 L. Ed. 2d 829 (2016). We hold that ] a feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own [***9]  or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated. Because that test is satisfied in this case, we affirm.

Respondents Varsity Brands, Inc., Varsity Spirit Corporation, and Varsity Spirit Fashions & Supplies, Inc., design, make, and sell cheerleading uniforms. Respondents have obtained or acquired more than 200 U. S. copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs appearing on the surface of their uniforms and other garments. These designs are primarily “combinations, positionings, and arrangements of elements” that include “chevrons . . ., lines, curves, stripes, angles, diagonals, inverted [chevrons], coloring, and shapes.” App. 237. At issue in this case are Designs 299A, 299B, 074, 078, and 0815. See Appendix, infra.

Petitioner Star Athletica, L. L. C., also markets and sells cheerleading uniforms. Respondents sued petitioner for infringing their copyrights in the five designs. The District Court entered summary judgment for petitioner on respondents’ copyright claims on the ground that the designs did  [*1008]  not qualify as protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works. It reasoned that the [***10]  designs served the useful, or “utilitarian,” function of identifying the garments as “cheerleading uniforms” and therefore could not be “physically or conceptually” separated under §101 “from the utilitarian function” of the uniform. 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26279, 2014 WL 819422, *8-*9 (WD Tenn., Mar. 1, 2014).

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137 S. Ct. 1002 *; 197 L. Ed. 2d 354 **; 2017 U.S. LEXIS 2026 ***; 122 U.S.P.Q.2D (BNA) 1001 ****; 85 U.S.L.W. 4139; Copy. L. Rep. (CCH) P31,069; 26 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 500


Notice: The LEXIS pagination of this document is subject to change pending release of the final published version.

Subsequent History: On remand at, Dismissed by, in part Varsity Brands, Inc. v. Star Athletica, LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126716 (W.D. Tenn., Aug. 10, 2017)


Varsity Brands, Inc. v. Star Athletica, LLC, 799 F.3d 468, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 14522 (6th Cir. Tenn., Aug. 19, 2015)

Disposition: 799 F. 3d 468, affirmed.


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Copyright Law, Subject Matter, Patent & Utility Considerations, Copyrightability of Patentable Works, Protected Subject Matter, Graphic, Pictorial & Sculptural Works, Works of Art, Civil Infringement Actions, Elements, Ownership, Utility Limitations, Civil Procedure, Appeals, Reviewability of Lower Court Decisions, Preservation for Review, US Supreme Court Review, Scope of Copyright Protection, Subject Matter, Governments, Legislation, Interpretation, Ownership Rights, Reproductions, Statutory Copyright & Fixation, Statutory Copyright & Fixation, Protected Subject Matter