Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc.
580 US ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

The “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” of a “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. Plaintiffs have copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs, consisting of lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes, appearing on cheerleading uniforms that they design, make, and sell. They sued a competitor for infringement. The district court rejected the claims on summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed. A feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature 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 fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated. That test is satisfied here. The feature cannot be a useful article or “[a]n article that is normally a part of a useful article,” nor the replica of a useful article in another medium. While plaintiffs have no right to prevent anyone from manufacturing a cheerleading uniform that is identical in shape, cut, or dimensions to the uniforms at issue here, an artistic feature that is eligible for copyright protection on its own does not 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.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

STAR ATHLETICA, L.L.C. v. VARSITY BRANDS, INC., et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit

No. 15–866. Argued October 31, 2016—Decided March 22, 2017

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.” 17 U. S. C. §101.

Respondents have more than 200 copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs—consisting of various lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes—appearing on the surface of the cheerleading uniforms that they design, make, and sell. They sued petitioner, who also markets cheerleading uniforms, for copyright infringement. The District Court granted petitioner summary judgment, holding that the designs could not be conceptually or physically separated from the uniforms and were therefore ineligible for copyright protection. In reversing, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the graphics could be “identified separately” and were “capable of existing independently” of the uniforms under §101.

Held: 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 or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated. That test is satisfied here. Pp. 3–17.

(a) Separability analysis is necessary in this case. Respondents claim that two-dimensional surface decorations are always separable, even without resorting to a §101 analysis, because they are “on a useful article” rather than “designs of a useful article.” But this argument is inconsistent with §101’s text. ”[P]ictorial” and “graphic” denote two-dimensional features such as pictures, paintings, or drawings. Thus, by providing protection for “pictorial, graphical, and sculptural works” incorporated into the “design of a useful article,” §101 necessarily contemplates that such a design can include two-dimensional features. This Court will not adjudicate in the first instance the Government’s distinct argument against applying separability analysis, which was neither raised below nor advanced here by any party. Pp. 4–6.

(b) Whether a feature incorporated into a useful article “can be identified separately from,” and is “capable of existing independently of,” the article’s “utilitarian aspects” is a matter of “statutory interpretation.” Mazer v. Stein, 347 U. S. 201 . Pp. 6–10.

(1) Section 101’s separate-identification requirement is met if the decisionmaker is able to look at the useful article and spot some two- or three-dimensional element that appears to have pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities. To satisfy the independent-existence requirement, the feature must be able to exist as its own pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work once it is imagined apart from the useful article. If the feature could not exist as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work on its own, it is simply one of the article’s utilitarian aspects. And to qualify as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work on its own, the feature cannot be a useful article or “[a]n article that is normally a part of a useful article,” §101. Neither could one claim a copyright in a useful article by creating a replica of it in another medium. Pp. 7–8.

(2) The statute as a whole confirms this interpretation. Section 101, which protects art first fixed in the medium of a useful article, is essentially the mirror image of §113(a), which protects art first fixed in a medium other than a useful article and subsequently applied to a useful article. Together, these 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. P. 8.

(3) This interpretation is also consistent with the Copyright Act’s history. In Mazer, a case decided under the 1909 Copyright Act, the Court held that respondents owned a copyright in a statuette created for use as a lamp base. In so holding, the Court approved a Copyright Office regulation extending protection to works of art that might also serve a useful purpose and held that it was irrelevant to the copyright inquiry whether the statuette was initially created as a freestanding sculpture or as a lamp base. Soon after, the Copyright Office enacted a regulation implementing Mazer’s holding that anticipated the language of §101, thereby introducing the modern separability test to copyright law. Congress essentially lifted the language from those post-Mazer regulations and placed it in §101 of the 1976 Act. Pp. 8–10.

(c) Applying the proper test here, the surface decorations on the cheerleading uniforms are separable and therefore eligible for copyright protection. First, the decorations can be identified as features having pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities. Second, if those decorations were separated from the uniforms and applied in another medium, they would qualify as two-dimensional works of art under §101. Imaginatively removing the decorations from the uniforms and applying them in another medium also would not replicate the uniform itself.

The dissent argues that the decorations are ineligible for copyright protection because, when imaginatively extracted, they form a picture of a cheerleading uniform. Petitioner similarly claims that the decorations cannot be copyrighted because, even when extracted from the useful article, they retain the outline of a cheerleading uniform. But this is not a bar to copyright. Just as two-dimensional fine art correlates 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. The only feature of respondents’ cheerleading uniform eligible for a copyright is the two-dimensional applied art on the surface of the uniforms. Respondents may prohibit the reproduction only of the surface designs on a uniform or in any other medium of expression. Respondents have no right to prevent anyone from manufacturing a cheerleading uniform that is identical in shape, cut, or dimensions to the uniforms at issue here. Pp. 10–12.

(d) None of the objections raised by petitioner or the Government is meritorious. Pp. 12–17.

(1) Petitioner and the Government focus on the relative utility of the plain white uniform that would remain if the designs were physically removed from the uniform. But the separability inquiry focuses on the extracted feature and not on any aspects of the useful article remaining after the imaginary extraction. The statute does not require the imagined remainder to be a fully functioning useful article at all. Nor can an artistic feature that would be eligible for copyright protection on its own 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. This has been the rule since Mazer, and it is consistent with the statute’s explicit protection of “applied art.” In rejecting petitioner’s view, the Court necessarily abandons the distinction between “physical” and “conceptual” separability adopted by some courts and commentators. Pp. 12–15.

(2) Petitioner also suggests incorporating two “objective” components into the test—one requiring consideration of evidence of the creator’s design methods, purposes, and reasons, and one looking to the feature’s marketability. The Court declines to incorporate these components because neither is grounded in the statute’s text. Pp. 15–16.

(3) Finally, petitioner claims that protecting surface decorations is inconsistent with Congress’ intent to entirely exclude industrial design from copyright. But Congress has given limited copyright protection to certain features of industrial design. Approaching the statute with presumptive hostility toward protection for industrial design would undermine that choice. In any event, the test adopted here does not render the underlying uniform eligible for copyright protection. Pp. 16–17.

799 F. 3d 468, affirmed.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Kennedy, J., joined.

Primary Holding

Copyright protection applies to a design feature in a useful article if the design feature is a work of art (in two or three dimensions) that is separate from the useful article and would qualify for protection if it is imagined separately from the useful article. Copyright protection still may apply if the design feature makes the article more useful.

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