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.
This case involved lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes on cheerleader uniforms.
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. The appeals court fashioned its own test and found that the design features of Varsity Brands' cheerleader uniform played no role in the overall function of the article as a cheerleading uniform, and the elements were separable from the utilitarian aspects of the uniform and thus eligible for copyright protection.
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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.
Thomas noted that Varsity even demonstrated that "imaginatively removing the surface decorations from the uniforms and applying them in another medium would not replicate the uniform itself".
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Varsity Brands' designs met that test, Thomas said.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in favor of Varsity Brands and said designs are protected if they're a 2-D or 3-D work of art that can exist outside of a functional object. The ruling supports the pre-established law that protects such works of art. Without the decorations, a uniform "looks exactly like the ubiquitous little black dress", Star stated in its brief. "But more fundamentally, we were honored to serve as advocates and fighters for the basic idea that designers everywhere can create excellent work and make investments in their future without fear of having it stolen or copied".
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