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

Annotate this Case

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

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No. 15–866

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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 Breyer, with whom Justice Kennedy joins, dissenting.

I agree with much in the Court’s opinion. But I do not agree that the designs that Varsity Brands, Inc., submitted to the Copyright Office are eligible for copyright protection. Even applying the majority’s test, the designs cannot “be perceived as . . . two- or three-dimensional work[s] of art separate from the useful article.” Ante, at 1.

Look at the designs that Varsity submitted to the Copyright Office. See Appendix to opinion of the Court, ante. You will see only pictures of cheerleader uniforms. And cheerleader uniforms are useful articles. A picture of the relevant design features, whether separately “perceived” on paper or in the imagination, is a picture of, and thereby “replicate[s],” the underlying useful article of which they are a part. Ante, at 1, 10. Hence the design features that Varsity seeks to protect are not “capable of existing independently o[f] the utilitarian aspects of the article.” 17 U. S. C. §101.

I

The relevant statutory provision says that the “design of a useful article” is copyrightable “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 utilitar-ian aspects of the article.” Ibid. But what, we must ask, do the words “identified separately” mean? Just when is a design separate from the “utilitarian aspect of the [useful] article?” The most direct, helpful aspect of the Court’s opinion answers this question by stating:

“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. Although the replica could itself be copyright-able, it would not give rise to any rights in the useful article that inspired it.” Ante, at 7–8.

Exactly so. These words help explain the Court’s statement that a copyrightable work of art must be “perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article.” Ante, at 1, 17. They help clarify the concept of separateness. Cf. 1 M. Nimmer & D. Nimmer, Nimmer on Copyright §2A.08[A][1] (2016) (Nimmer) (describing courts’ difficulty in applying that concept). They are consistent with Congress’ own expressed intent. 17 U. S. C. §101; H. R. Rep. No. 94–1476, pp. 55, 105 (1976) (H. R. Rep.). And they reflect long held views of the Copyright Office. See Compendium of U. S. Copyright Office Practices §924.2(B) (3d ed. 2014), online at http://www.copyright.gov/comp3/docs/compendium.pdf (as last visited Mar. 7, 2017) (Compendium).

Consider, for example, the explanation that the House Report for the Copyright Act of 1976 provides. It says:

“Unless the shape of an automobile, airplane, ladies’ dress, food processor, television set, or any other industrial product contains some element that, physically or conceptually, can be identified as separable from the utilitarian aspects of that article, the design would not be copyrighted . . . .” H. R. Rep., at 55 (emphasis added).

These words suggest two exercises, one physical, one mental. Can the design features (the picture, the graphic, the sculpture) be physically removed from the article (and considered separately), all the while leaving the fully functioning utilitarian object in place? If not, can one nonetheless conceive of the design features separately without replicating a picture of the utilitarian object? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” then the design is eligible for copyright protection. Otherwise, it is not. The abstract nature of these questions makes them sound difficult to apply. But with the Court’s words in mind, the difficulty tends to disappear.

An example will help. Imagine a lamp with a circular marble base, a vertical 10-inch tall brass rod (containing wires) inserted off center on the base, a light bulb fixture emerging from the top of the brass rod, and a lampshade sitting on top. In front of the brass rod a porcelain Siamese cat sits on the base facing outward. Obviously, the Siamese cat is physically separate from the lamp, as it could be easily removed while leaving both cat and lamp intact. And, assuming it otherwise qualifies, the designed cat is eligible for copyright protection.

Now suppose there is no long brass rod; instead the cat sits in the middle of the base and the wires run up through the cat to the bulbs. The cat is not physically separate from the lamp, as the reality of the lamp’s construction is such that an effort to physically separate the cat and lamp will destroy both cat and lamp. The two are integrated into a single functional object, like the similar configuration of the ballet dancer statuettes that formed the lamp bases at issue in Mazer v. Stein, 347 U. S. 201 (1954) . But we can easily imagine the cat on its own, as did Congress when conceptualizing the ballet dancer. See H. R. Rep., at 55 (the statuette in Mazer was “incorporated into a product without losing its ability to exist independently as a work of art”). In doing so, we do not create a mental picture of a lamp (or, in the Court’s words, a “replica” of the lamp), which is a useful article. We simply perceive the cat separately, as a small cat figurine that could be a copyrightable design work standing alone that does not replicate the lamp. Hence the cat is conceptually separate from the utilitarian article that is the lamp. The pair of lamps pictured at Figures 1 and 2 in the Appendix to this opinion illustrate this principle.

Case law, particularly case law that Congress and the Copyright Office have considered, reflects the same approach. Congress cited examples of copyrightable design works, including “a carving on the back of a chair” and “a floral relief design on silver flatware.” H. R. Rep., at 55. Copyright Office guidance on copyrightable designs in useful articles include “an engraving on a vase,” “[a]rtwork printed on a t-shirt,” “[a] colorful pattern decorating the surface of a shopping bag,” “[a] drawing on the surface of wallpaper,” and “[a] floral relief decorating the handle of a spoon.” Compendium §924.2(B). Courts have found copyrightable matter in a plaster ballet dancer statuette encasing the lamp’s electric cords and forming its base, see Mazer, supra, as well as carvings engraved onto furniture, see Universal Furniture Int’l, Inc. v. Collezione Europa USA, Inc., 618 F. 3d 417, 431–435 (CA4 2010) ( per curiam), and designs on laminated floor tiles, see Home Leg-end, LLC v. Mannington Mills, Inc., 784 F. 3d 1404, 1412–1413 (CA11 2015). See generally Brief for Intellectual Property Professors as Amici Curiae.

By way of contrast, Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of old shoes, though beautifully executed and copyrightable as a painting, would not qualify for a shoe design copyright. See Appendix, fig. 3, infra; 17 U. S. C. §§113(a)–(b). Courts have similarly denied copyright protection to objects that begin as three-dimensional designs, such as measuring spoons shaped like heart-tipped arrows, Bonazoli v. R. S. V. P. Int’l, Inc., 353 F. Supp. 2d 218, 226–227 (RI 2005); candleholders shaped like sailboats, Design Ideas, Ltd. v. Yankee Candle Co., 889 F. Supp. 2d 1119, 1128 (CD Ill. 2012); and wire spokes on a wheel cover, Norris Industries, Inc. v. International Tel. & Tel. Corp., 696 F. 2d 918, 922–924 (CA11 1983). None of these designs could qualify for copyright protection that would prevent others from selling spoons, candleholders, or wheel covers with the same design. Why not? Because in each case the design is not separable from the utilitarian aspects of the object to which it relates. The designs cannot be physically separated because they themselves make up the shape of the spoon, candleholders, or wheel covers of which they are a part. And spoons, candleholders, and wheel covers are useful objects, as are the old shoes depicted in Van Gogh’s painting. More importantly, one cannot easily imagine or otherwise conceptualize the design of the spoons or the candleholders or the shoes without that picture, or image, or replica being a picture of spoons, or candleholders, or wheel covers, or shoes. The designs necessarily bring along the underlying utilitarian object. Hence each design is not conceptually separable from the physical useful object.

The upshot is that one could copyright the floral design on a soupspoon but one could not copyright the shape of the spoon itself, no matter how beautiful, artistic, or esthetically pleasing that shape might be: A picture of the shape of the spoon is also a picture of a spoon; the picture of a floral design is not. See Compendium §924.2(B).

To repeat: A separable design feature must be “capable of existing independently” of the useful article as a separate artistic work that is not itself the useful article. If the claimed feature could be extracted without replicating the useful article of which it is a part, and the result would be a copyrightable artistic work standing alone, then there is a separable design. But if extracting the claimed features would necessarily bring along the underlying useful article, the design is not separable from the useful article. In many or most cases, to decide whether a design or artistic feature of a useful article is conceptually separate from the article itself, it is enough to imagine the feature on its own and ask, “Have I created a picture of a (useful part of a) useful article?” If so, the design is not separable from the useful article. If not, it is.

In referring to imagined pictures and the like, I am not speaking technically. I am simply trying to explain an intuitive idea of what separation is about, as well as how I understand the majority’s opinion. So understood, the opinion puts design copyrights in their rightful place. The law has long recognized that drawings or photographs of real world objects are copyrightable as drawings or photographs, but the copyright does not give protection against others making the underlying useful objects. See, e.g., Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U. S. 53 (1884) . That is why a copyright on Van Gogh’s painting would prevent others from reproducing that painting, but it would not prevent others from reproducing and selling the comfortable old shoes that the painting depicts. Indeed, the purpose of §113(b) was to ensure that “ ‘copyright in a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work, portraying a useful article as such, does not extend to the manufacture of the useful article itself.’ ” H. R. Rep., at 105.

II

To ask this kind of simple question—does the design picture the useful article?—will not provide an answer in every case, for there will be cases where it is difficult to say whether a picture of the design is, or is not, also a picture of the useful article. But the question will avoid courts focusing primarily upon what I believe is an unhelpful feature of the inquiry, namely, whether the design can be imagined as a “two- or three-dimensional work of art.” Ante, at 1, 17. That is because virtually any industrial design can be thought of separately as a “work of art”: Just imagine a frame surrounding the design, or its being placed in a gallery. Consider Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades” series, the functional mass-produced objects he designated as art. See Appendix, fig. 4, infra. What is there in the world that, viewed through an esthetic lens, cannot be seen as a good, bad, or indifferent work of art? What design features could not be imaginatively reproduced on a painter’s canvas? Indeed, great industrial design may well include design that is inseparable from the useful article—where, as Frank Lloyd Wright put it, “form and function are one.” F. Wright, An Autobiography 146 (1943) (reprint 2005). Where they are one, the designer may be able to obtain 15 years of protection through a design patent. 35 U. S. C. §§171, 173; see also McKenna & Strandburg, Progress and Competition in Design, 17 Stan. Tech. L. Rev. 1, 48–51 (2013). But, if they are one, Congress did not intend a century or more of copyright protection.

III

The conceptual approach that I have described reflects Congress’ answer to a problem that is primarily practical and economic. Years ago Lord Macaulay drew attention to the problem when he described copyright in books as a “tax on readers for the purpose of giving a bounty to writers.” 56 Parl. Deb. (3d Ser.) (1841) 341, 350. He called attention to the main benefit of copyright protection, which is to provide an incentive to produce copyrightable works and thereby “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” U. S. Const., Art. I, §8, cl. 8. But Macaulay also made clear that copyright protection imposes costs. Those costs include the higher prices that can accompany the grant of a copyright monopoly. They also can include (for those wishing to display, sell, or perform a design, film, work of art, or piece of music, for example) the costs of discovering whether there are previous copyrights, of contacting copyright holders, and of securing permission to copy. Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U. S. 186 –252 (2003) (Breyer, J., dissenting). Sometimes, as Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison, costs can outweigh “the benefit even of limited monopolies.” Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison (July 31, 1788), in 13 Papers of Thomas Jefferson 443 (J. Boyd ed. 1956) (Jefferson Letter). And that is particularly true in light of the fact that Congress has extended the “limited Times” of protection, U. S. Const., Art. I, §8, cl. 8, from the “14 years” of Jefferson’s day to potentially more than a century today. Jefferson Letter 443; see also Eldred, supra, at 246–252 (opinion of Breyer, J.).

The Constitution grants Congress primary responsibility for assessing comparative costs and benefits and drawing copyright’s statutory lines. Courts must respect those lines and not grant copyright protection where Congress has decided not to do so. And it is clear that Congress has not extended broad copyright protection to the fashion design industry. See, e.g., 1 Nimmer §2A.08[H][3][c] (describing how Congress rejected proposals for fashion design protection within the 1976 Act and has rejected every proposed bill to this effect since then); Esquire, Inc. v. Ringer, 591 F. 2d 796, 800, n. 12 (CADC 1978) (observing that at the time of the 1976 Copyright Act, Congress had rejected every one of the approximately 70 design protection bills that had been introduced since 1914); e.g., H. R. 5055, 109th Cong., 2d Sess.: “To Amend title 17, United States Code, to provide protection for fashion design” (introduced Mar. 30, 2006; unenacted). Congress has left “statutory . . . protection . . . largely unavailable for dress designs.” 1 Nimmer §2A.08[H][3][a]; Raustiala & Sprigman, The Piracy Paradox: Innovation and Intellec-tual Property in Fashion Design, 92 Va. L. Rev. 1687, 1698–1705 (2006).

Congress’ decision not to grant full copyright protection to the fashion industry has not left the industry without protection. Patent design protection is available. 35 U. S. C. §§171, 173. A maker of clothing can obtain trademark protection under the Lanham Act for signature features of the clothing. 15 U. S. C. §1051 et seq. And a designer who creates an original textile design can receive copyright protection for that pattern as placed, for example, on a bolt of cloth, or anything made with that cloth. E.g., Compendium §924.3(A)(1). “[T]his [type of] claim . . . is generally made by the fabric producer rather than the garment or costume designer,” and is “ordinarily made when the two-dimensional design is applied to the textile fabric and before the garment is cut from the fabric.” 56 Fed. Reg. 56531 (1991).

The fashion industry has thrived against this backdrop, and designers have contributed immeasurably to artistic and personal self-expression through clothing. But a decision by this Court to grant protection to the design of a garment would grant the designer protection that Congress refused to provide. It would risk increased prices and unforeseeable disruption in the clothing industry, which in the United States alone encompasses nearly $370 billion in annual spending and 1.8 million jobs. Brief for Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc., as Amicus Curiae 3–4 (citing U. S. Congress, Joint Economic Committee, The New Economy of Fashion 1 (2016)). That is why I believe it important to emphasize those parts of the Court’s opinion that limit the scope of its interpretation. That language, as I have said, makes clear that one may not “claim a copyright in a useful article merely by creating a replica of that article in some other medium,” which “would not give rise to any rights in the useful article that inspired it.” Ante, at 7–8.

IV

If we ask the “separateness” question correctly, the answer here is not difficult to find. The majority’s opinion, in its appendix, depicts the cheerleader dress designs that Varsity submitted to the Copyright Office. Can the design features in Varsity’s pictures exist separately from the utilitarian aspects of a dress? Can we extract those features as copyrightable design works standing alone, without bringing along, via picture or design, the dresses of which they constitute a part?

Consider designs 074, 078, and 0815. They certainly look like cheerleader uniforms. That is to say, they look like pictures of cheerleader uniforms, just like Van Gogh’s old shoes look like shoes. I do not see how one could see them otherwise. Designs 299A and 2999B present slightly closer questions. They omit some of the dresslike context that the other designs possess. But the necklines, the sleeves, and the cut of the skirt suggest that they too are pictures of dresses. Looking at all five of Varsity’s pictures, I do not see how one could conceptualize the design features in a way that does not picture, not just artistic designs, but dresses as well.

Were I to accept the majority’s invitation to “imaginatively remov[e]” the chevrons and stripes as they are arranged on the neckline, waistline, sleeves, and skirt of each uniform, and apply them on a “painter’s canvas,” ante, at 10, that painting would be of a cheerleader’s dress. The esthetic elements on which Varsity seeks protection exist only as part of the uniform design—there is nothing to separate out but for dress-shaped lines that replicate the cut and style of the uniforms. Hence, each design is not physically separate, nor is it conceptually separate, from the useful article it depicts, namely, a cheerleader’s dress. They cannot be copyrighted.

Varsity, of course, could have sought a design patent for its designs. Or, it could have sought a copyright on a textile design, even one with a similar theme of chevrons and lines.

But that is not the nature of Varsity’s copyright claim. It has instead claimed ownership of the particular “ ‘treatment and arrangement’ ” of the chevrons and lines of the design as they appear at the neckline, waist, skirt, sleeves, and overall cut of each uniform. Brief for Respondents 50. The majority imagines that Varsity submitted something different—that is, only the surface decorations of chevrons and stripes, as in a textile design. As the majority sees it, Varsity’s copyright claim would be the same had it submitted a plain rectangular space depicting chevrons and stripes, like swaths from a bolt of fabric. But considered on their own, the simple stripes are plainly unoriginal. Varsity, then, seeks to do indirectly what it cannot do directly: bring along the design and cut of the dresses by seeking to protect surface decorations whose “treatment and arrangement” are coextensive with that design and cut. As Varsity would have it, it would prevent its competitors from making useful three-dimensional cheerleader uniforms by submitting plainly unoriginal chevrons and stripes as cut and arranged on a useful article. But with that cut and arrangement, the resulting 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 them the power to prevent others from making those useful uniforms, any more than Van Gogh can copyright comfortable old shoes by painting their likeness.

I fear that, in looking past the three-dimensional design inherent in Varsity’s claim by treating it as if it were no more than a design for a bolt of cloth, the majority has lost sight of its own important limiting principle. One may not “claim a copyright in a useful article merely by creating a replica of that article in some other medium,” such as in a picture. Ante, at 7. That is to say, one cannot obtain a copyright that would give its holder “any rights in the useful article that inspired it.” Ante, at 8.

With respect, I dissent.

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