NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
STAR ATHLETICA, L. L. C., PETITIONER v.
VARSITY BRANDS, INC., et al.
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit
[March 22, 2017]
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 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. ___ (2016). We hold that a feature incor-porated 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 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 not qualify as protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works. It reasoned that the 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 WL 819422, *8–*9 (WD Tenn., Mar. 1, 2014).
The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed. 799 F. 3d 468, 471 (2015). In its view, the “graphic designs” were “separately identifiable” because the designs “and a blank cheerleading uniform can appear ‘side by side’—one as a graphic design, and one as a cheerleading uniform.” Id.,
at 491 (quoting Compendium of U. S. Copyright Office Practices §924.2(B) (3d ed. 2014) (Compendium)). And it determined that the designs were “ ‘capable of existing independently’ ” because they could be incorporated onto the surface of different types of garments, or hung on the wall and framed as art. 799 F. 3d, at 491, 492.
Judge McKeague dissented. He would have held that, because “identifying the wearer as a cheerleader” is a utilitarian function of a cheerleading uniform and the surface designs were “integral to” achieving that function, the designs were inseparable from the uniforms. Id.,
The first element of a copyright-infringement claim is “ownership of a valid copyright.” Feist Publications, Inc.
v. Rural Telephone Service Co.
499 U. S. 340,
. A valid copyright extends only to copyrightable subject matter. See 4 M. Nimmer & D. Nimmer, Copyright §13.01[A] (2010) (Nimmer). The Copyright Act of 1976 defines copyrightable subject matter as “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”
17 U. S. C. §102(a).
“Works of authorship” include “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works,” §102(a)(5), which the statute defines to include “two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art, photographs, prints and art reproductions, maps, globes, charts, diagrams, models, and technical drawings, including architectural plans,” §101. And a work of authorship is “ ‘fixed’ in a tangible medium of expression when it[ is] embodi[ed] in a” “material objec[t] . . . from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated.” Ibid.
(definitions of “fixed” and “copies”).
The Copyright Act also establishes a special rule for copyrighting a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work incorporated into a “useful article,” which is defined as “an article having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information.” Ibid.
The statute does not protect useful articles as such. Rather, “the design of a useful article” is “considered a pictorial, graphical, or sculptural work only if, and only to the extent that, such design incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” Ibid
Courts, the Copyright Office, and commentators have described the analysis undertaken to determine whether a feature can be separately identified from, and exist independently of, a useful article as “separability.” In this case, our task is to determine whether the arrangements of lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes appearing on the surface of respondents’ cheerleading uniforms are eligible for copyright protection as separable features of the design of those cheerleading uniforms.
As an initial matter, we must address whether separability analysis is necessary in this case.
Respondents argue that “[s]eparability is only implicated when a [pictorial, graphic, or sculptural] work is the ‘design of a useful article.’ ” Brief for Respondents 25. They contend that the surface decorations in this case are “two-dimensional graphic designs that appear on
useful articles,” but are not themselves designs of
useful articles. Id.,
at 52. Consequently, the surface decorations are protected two-dimensional works of graphic art without regard to any separability analysis under §101. Ibid.
; see 2 W. Patry, Copyright §3:151, p. 3–485 (2016) (Patry) (“Courts looking at two-dimensional design claims should not apply the separability analysis regardless of the three-dimensional form that design is embodied in”). Under this theory, two-dimensional artistic features on the surface of useful articles are “inherently separable.” Brief for Respondents 26.
This argument is inconsistent with the text of §101. The statute requires separability analysis for any “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” incorporated into the “design of a useful article.” “Design” refers here to “the combination” of “details” or “features” that “go to make up” the useful article. 3 Oxford English Dictionary 244 (def. 7, first listing) (1933) (OED). Furthermore, the words “pictorial” and “graphic” include, in this context, two-dimensional features such as pictures, paintings, or drawings. See 4 id.
, at 359 (defining “[g]raphic” to mean “[o]f or pertaining to drawing or painting”); 7 id.,
at 830 (defining “[p]ictorial” to mean “of or pertaining to painting or drawing”). And the statute expressly defines “[p]ictorial, graphical, and sculptural works” to include “two-dimensional . . . works of . . . art.” §101. The statute thus provides that the “design of a useful article” can include two-dimensional “pictorial” and “graphic” features, and separability analysis applies to those features just as it does to three-dimensional “sculptural” features.
The United States makes a related but distinct argument against applying separability analysis in this case, which respondents do not and have not advanced. As part of their copyright registrations for the designs in this case, respondents deposited with the Copyright Office drawings and photographs depicting the designs incorporated onto cheerleading uniforms. App. 213–219; Appendix, infra
. The Government argues that, assuming the other statutory requirements were met, respondents obtained a copyright in the deposited drawings and photographs and have simply reproduced those copyrighted works on the surface of a useful article, as they would have the exclusive right to do under the Copyright Act. See Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae
14–15, 17–22. Accordingly, the Government urges, separability analysis is unnecessary on the record in this case. We generally do not entertain arguments that were not raised below and that are not advanced in this Court by any party, Burwell
v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
, 573 U. S. ___, ___ (2014), because “[i]t is not the Court’s usual practice to adjudicate either legal or predicate factual questions in the first instance,” CRST Van Expedited, Inc.
, 578 U. S. ___, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 16). We decline to depart from our usual practice here.
We must now decide when a feature incorporated into a useful article “can be identified separately from” and is “capable of existing independently of” “the utilitarian aspects” of the article. This is not a free-ranging search for the best copyright policy, but rather “depends solely on statutory interpretation.” Mazer
347 U. S. 201,
. “The controlling principle in this case is the basic and unexceptional rule that courts must give effect to the clear meaning of statutes as written.” Estate of Cowart
v. Nicklos Drilling Co.
505 U. S. 469,
. We thus begin and end our inquiry with the text, giving each word its “ordinary, contemporary, common meaning.” Walters
v. Metropolitan Ed. Enterprises, Inc.
519 U. S. 202,
(internal quotation marks omitted). We do not, however, limit this inquiry to the text of §101 in isolation. “[I]nterpretation of a phrase of uncertain reach is not confined to a single sentence when the text of the whole statute gives instruction as to its meaning.” Maracich
, 570 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 15). We thus “look to the provisions of the whole law” to determine §101’s meaning. United States
v. Heirs of Boisdoré
, 8 How. 113, 122 (1849).
The statute provides that a “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural featur[e]” incorporated into the “design of a useful article” is eligible for copyright protection if it (1) “can be identified separately from,” and (2) is “capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” §101. The first requirement—separate identification—is not onerous. The decisionmaker need only be able to look at the useful article and spot some two- or three-dimensional element that appears to have pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities. See 2 Patry §3:146, at 3–474 to3–475.
The independent-existence requirement is ordinarily more difficult to satisfy. The decisionmaker must determine that the separately identified feature has the capacity to exist apart from the utilitarian aspects of the article. See 2 OED 88 (def. 5) (defining “[c]apable” of as “[h]aving the needful capacity, power, or fitness for”). In other words, the feature must be able to exist as its own pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work as defined in §101 once it is imagined apart from the useful article. If the feature is not capable of existing as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work once separated from the useful article, then it was not a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural feature of that article, but rather one of its utilitarian aspects.
Of course, to qualify as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work on its own, the feature cannot itself be a useful article or “[a]n article that is normally a part of a useful article” (which is itself considered a useful article). §101. Nor could someone claim a copyright in a useful article merely by creating a replica of that article in some other medium—for example, a cardboard model of a car. Al-though the replica could itself be copyrightable, it would not give rise to any rights in the useful article that inspired it.
The statute as a whole confirms our interpretation. The Copyright Act provides “the owner of [a] copyright” with the “exclusive righ[t] . . . to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies.” §106(1). The statute clarifies that this right “includes the right to reproduce the [copyrighted] work in or on any kind of article, whether useful or otherwise.” §113(a). Section 101 is, in essence, the mirror image of §113(a). Whereas §113(a) protects a work of authorship first fixed in some tangible medium other than a useful article and subsequently applied to a useful article, §101 protects art first fixed in the medium of a useful article. The two provisions make clear that copyright protection extends to pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works regardless of whether they were created as freestanding art or as features of useful articles. The ultimate separability question, then, is whether the feature for which copyright protection is claimed would have been eligible for copyright protection as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work had it originally been fixed in some tangible medium other than a useful article before being applied to a useful article.
This interpretation is also consistent with the history of the Copyright Act. In Mazer
, a case decided under the 1909 Copyright Act, the respondents copyrighted a statuette depicting a dancer. The statuette was intended for use as a lamp base, “with electric wiring, sockets and lamp shades attached.” 347 U. S., at 202.
Copies of the statuette were sold both as lamp bases and separately as statuettes. Id.,
at 203. The petitioners copied the statuette and sold lamps with the statuette as the base. They defended against the respondents’ infringement suit by arguing that the respondents did not have a copyright in a statuette intended for use as a lamp base. Id.,
Two of Mazer
’s holdings are relevant here. First, the Court held that the respondents owned a copyright in the statuette even though it was intended for use as a lamp base. See id.,
at 214. In doing so, the Court approved the Copyright Office’s regulation extending copyright protection to works of art that might also serve a useful purpose. See ibid.
37 CFR §202.8(a) (1949) (protect-ing “works of artistic craftsmanship, in so far as theirform but not their mechanical or utilitarian aspects are concerned”)).
Second, the Court held that it was irrelevant to the copyright inquiry whether the statuette was initially created as a freestanding sculpture or as a lamp base. 347 U. S., at 218–219 (“Nor do we think the subsequent registration of a work of art published as an element in a manufactured article, is a misuse of copyright. This is not different from the registration of a statuette and its later embodiment in an industrial article”). Mazer
thus interpreted the 1909 Act consistently with the rule discussed above: If a design would have been copyrightable as a standalone pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work, it is copyrightable if created first as part of a useful article.
Shortly thereafter, the Copyright Office enacted a regulation implementing the holdings of Mazer
. See 1 Nimmer §2A.08[B][b] (2016). As amended, the regulation introduced the modern separability test to copyright law:
“If the sole intrinsic function of an article is its utility, the fact that the article is unique and attractively shaped will not qualify it as a work of art. However, if the shape of a utilitarian article incorporates features, such as artistic sculpture, carving, or pictorial representation, which can be identified separately and are capable of existing independently as a work of art, such features will be eligible for registration.” 37 CFR §202.10(c) (1960) (punctuation altered).
Congress essentially lifted the language governing protection for the design of a useful article directly from the post-Mazer
regulations and placed it into §101 of the 1976 Act. Consistent with Mazer
, the approach we outline today interprets §§101 and 113 in a way that would afford copyright protection to the statuette in Mazer
regardless of whether it was first created as a standalone sculptural work or as the base of the lamp. See 347 U. S., at 218–219.
In sum, a feature of the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright if, when identified and imagined apart from the useful article, it would qualify as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or when fixed in some other tangible medium.
Applying this test to the surface decorations on the cheerleading uniforms is straightforward. First, one can identify the decorations as features having pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities. Second, if the arrangement of colors, shapes, stripes, and chevrons on the surface of the cheerleading uniforms were separated from the uniform and applied in another medium—for example, on a painter’s canvas—they would qualify as “two-dimensional . . . works of . . . art,” §101. And imaginatively removing the surface decorations from the uniforms and applying them in another medium would not replicate the uniform itself. Indeed, respondents have applied the designs in this case to other media of expression—different types of clothing—without replicating the uniform. See App. 273–279. The decorations are therefore separable from the uniforms and eligible for copyright protection.[1
The dissent argues that the designs are not separable because imaginatively removing them from the uniforms and placing them in some other medium of expression—a canvas, for example—would create “pictures of cheerleader uniforms.” Post,
at 10 (opinion of Breyer, J.). Petitioner similarly argues that the decorations cannot be copyrighted because, even when extracted from the useful article,they retain the outline of a cheerleading uniform. Brief for Petitioner 48–49.
This is not a bar to copyright. Just as two-dimensional fine art corresponds to the shape of the canvas on which it is painted, two-dimensional applied art correlates to the contours of the article on which it is applied. A fresco painted on a wall, ceiling panel, or dome would not lose copyright protection, for example, simply because it was designed to track the dimensions of the surface on which it was painted. Or consider, for example, a design etched or painted on the surface of a guitar. If that entire design is imaginatively removed from the guitar’s surface and placed on an album cover, it would still resemble the shape of a guitar. But the image on the cover does not “replicate” the guitar as a useful article. Rather, the design is a two-dimensional work of art that corresponds to the shape of the useful article to which it was applied. The statute protects that work of art whether it is first drawn on the album cover and then applied to the guitar’s surface, or vice versa. Failing to protect that art would create an anomaly: It would extend protection to two-dimensional designs that cover a part of a useful article but would not protect the same design if it covered the entire article. The statute does not support that distinction, nor can it be reconciled with the dissent’s recognition that “artwork printed on a t-shirt” could be protected. Post,
at 4 (internal quotation marks omitted).
To be clear, the only feature of the cheerleading uniform eligible for a copyright in this case is the two-dimensional work of art fixed in the tangible medium of the uniform fabric. Even if respondents ultimately succeed in establishing a valid copyright in the surface decorations at issue here, respondents have no right to prohibit any person from manufacturing a cheerleading uniform of identical shape, cut, and dimensions to the ones on which the decorations in this case appear. They may prohibit only the reproduction of the surface designs in any tangible medium of expression—a uniform or otherwise.[2
Petitioner and the Government raise several objections to the approach we announce today. None is meritorious.
Petitioner first argues that our reading of the statute is missing an important step. It contends that a feature may exist independently only if it can stand alone as a copyrightable work and
if the useful article from which it was extracted would remain equally useful. In other words, copyright extends only to “solely artistic” features of useful articles. Brief for Petitioner 33. According to petitioner, if a feature of a useful article “advance[s] the utility of the article,” id.,
at 38, then it is categorically beyond the scope of copyright, id.
, at 33. The designs here are not protected, it argues, because they are necessary to two of the uniforms’ “inherent, essential, or natural functions”—identifying the wearer as a cheerleader and enhancing the wearer’s physical appearance. Id.
, at 38, 48; Reply Brief 2, 16. Because the uniforms would not be equally useful without the designs, petitioner contends that the designs are inseparable from the “utilitarian aspects” of the uniform. Brief for Petitioner 50.
The Government raises a similar argument, although it reaches a different result. It suggests that the appropriate test is whether the useful article with the artistic feature removed would “remai[n] similarly
useful.” Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae
29 (emphasis added). In the view of the United States, however, a plain white cheerleading uniform is “similarly useful” to uniforms with respondents’ designs. Id.,
The debate over the relative utility of a plain white cheerleading uniform is unnecessary. The focus of the separability inquiry is on the extracted feature and not on any aspects of the useful article that remain after the imaginary extraction. The statute does not require the decisionmaker to imagine a fully functioning useful article without the artistic feature. Instead, it requires that the separated feature qualify as a nonuseful pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work on its own.
Of course, because the removed feature may not be a useful article—as it would then not qualify as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—there necessarily would be some aspects of the original useful article “left behind” if the feature were conceptually removed. But the statute does not require the imagined remainder to be a fully functioning useful article at all, much less an equally useful one. Indeed, such a requirement would deprive the Mazer
statuette of protection had it been created first as a lamp base rather than as a statuette. Without the base, the “lamp” would be just a shade, bulb, and wires. The statute does not require that we imagine a nonartistic replacement for the removed feature to determine whether that feature
is capable of an independent existence.
Petitioner’s argument follows from its flawed view that the statute protects only “solely artistic” features that have no effect whatsoever on a useful article’s utilitarian function. This view is inconsistent with the statutory text. The statute expressly protects two- and three-dimensional “applied art.” §101. “Applied art” is art “employed in the decoration, design, or execution of useful objects,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 105 (1976) (emphasis added), or “those arts or crafts that have a primarily utilitarian function
, or . . . the designs and decorations used in these arts,” Random House Dictionary 73 (1966) (emphasis added); see also 1 OED 576 (2d ed. 1989) (defining “applied” as “[p]ut to practical use”). An artistic feature that would be eligible for copyright protection on its own cannot lose that protection simply because it was first created as a feature of the design of a useful article, even if it makes that article more useful.
Indeed, this has been the rule since Mazer
. In holding that the statuette was protected, the Court emphasized that the 1909 Act abandoned any “distinctions between purely aesthetic articles and useful works of art.” 347 U. S., at 211. Congress did not enact such a distinction in the 1976 Act. Were we to accept petitioner’s argument that the only protectable features are those that play absolutely no role in an article’s function, we would effectively abrogate the rule of Mazer
and read “applied art” out of the statute.
Because we reject the view that a useful article must remain after the artistic feature has been imaginatively separated from the article, we necessarily abandon the distinction between “physical” and “conceptual” separability, which some courts and commentators have adopted based on the Copyright Act’s legislative history. See H. R. Rep. No. 94–1476, p. 55 (1976). According to this view, a feature is physically
separable from the underlying useful article if it can “be physically separated from the article by ordinary means while leaving the utilitarian aspects of the article completely intact.” Compendium §924.2(A); see also Chosun Int’l, Inc.
v. Chrisha Creations
, 413 F. 3d 324, 329 (CA2 2005). Conceptual
separability applies if the feature physically could not be removed from the useful article by ordinary means. See Compendium §924.2(B); but see 1 P. Goldstein, Copyright §2.5.3, p. 2:77 (3d ed. 2016) (explaining that the lower courts have been unable to agree on a single conceptual separability test); 2 Patry §§3:140–3:144.40 (surveying the various approaches in the lower courts).
The statutory text indicates that separability is a conceptual undertaking. Because separability does not require the underlying useful article to remain, the physical-conceptual distinction is unnecessary.
Petitioner next argues that we should incorporate two “objective” components, Reply Brief 9, into our test to provide guidance to the lower courts: (1) “whether the design elements can be identified as reflecting the designer’s artistic judgment exercised independently of functional influence,” Brief for Petitioner 34 (emphasis deleted and internal quotation marks omitted), and (2) whether “there is [a] substantial likelihood that the pictorial, graphic, or sculptural feature would still be marketable to some significant segment of the community without its utilitarian function,” id.,
at 35 (emphasis deleted and internal quotation marks omitted).
We reject this argument because neither consideration is grounded in the text of the statute. The first would require the decisionmaker to consider evidence of the creator’s design methods, purposes, and reasons. Id.,
at 48. The statute’s text makes clear, however, that our inquiry is limited to how the article and feature are perceived, not how or why they were designed. See Brandir Int’l, Inc.
v. Cascade Pacific Lumber Co.
, 834 F. 2d 1142, 1152 (CA2 1987) (Winter, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (The statute “expressly states that the legal test is how the final article is perceived, not how it was developed through various stages”).
The same is true of marketability. Nothing in the statute suggests that copyrightability depends on market surveys. Moreover, asking whether some segment of the market would be interested in a given work threatens to prize popular art over other forms, or to substitute judicial aesthetic preferences for the policy choices embodied in the Copyright Act. See Bleistein
v. Donaldson Lithographing Co.
188 U. S. 239,
(“It would be a dangerous undertaking for persons trained only to the law to constitute themselves final judges of the worth of pictorial illustrations, outside of the narrowest and most obvious limits”).
Finally, petitioner argues that allowing the surface decorations to qualify as a “work of authorship” is inconsistent with Congress’ intent to entirely exclude industrial design from copyright. Petitioner notes that Congress refused to pass a provision that would have provided limited copyright protection for industrial designs, including clothing, when it enacted the 1976 Act, see id.,
at 9–11 (citing S. 22, Tit. II, 94th Cong., 2d Sess., 122 Cong. Rec. 3856–3859 (1976)), and that it has enacted laws protecting designs for specific useful articles—semiconductor chips and boat hulls, see 17 U. S. C. §§901–914, 1301–1332—while declining to enact other industrial design statutes, Brief for Petitioner 29, 43. From this history of failed legislation petitioner reasons that Congress intends to channel intellectual property claims for industrial design into design patents. It therefore urges us to approach this question with a presumption against copyrightability. Id.,
We do not share petitioner’s concern. As an initial matter, “[c]ongressional inaction lacks persuasive significance” in most circumstances. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
v. LTV Corp.
496 U. S. 633,
(internal quotation marks omitted). Moreover, we have long held that design patent and copyright are not mutually exclusive. See Mazer
, 347 U. S., at 217.
Congress has provided for limited copyright protection for certain features of industrial design, and approaching the statute with presumptive hostility toward protection for industrial design would undermine Congress’ choice. In any event, as explained above, our test does not render the shape, cut, and physical dimensions of the cheerleading uniforms eligible for copyright protection.
We hold that an artistic feature of the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection 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 or in some other medium if imagined separately from the useful article. Because the designs on the surface of respondents’ cheerleading uniforms in this case satisfy these requirements, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.
It is so ordered.