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Supreme Court rules uniform design elements can be copyrighted

By Lawrence Hurley

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that basic elements in cheerleader uniform designs merit copyright protection, handing a victory to the top American maker of the garments in a decision with serious implications for the fashion industry.

The justices ruled 6-2 to uphold a lower court's 2015 ruling allowing a lawsuit by Varsity Brands Inc, the dominant cheerleader uniform maker, accusing smaller rival Star Athletica LLC of infringing on five of its designs to proceed.

In the majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, the high court put forth a two-part test for whether design elements warranted copyright protection.

The justices said the "pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features" must be "separable" from the design of a utilitarian object. The features would also have to merit copyright protection as a stand-alone work.

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred in the majority decisions but said she would not have applied a "separability" test. Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy dissented, saying the elements could not be separated from the design.

The closely watched case centered on whether the stripes, zigzags and chevrons that typify cheerleader uniforms can be copyrighted, as Varsity contends, or are so fundamental to the purpose of the garment that they should not deserve such legal protection. Without such adornments, a cheerleader uniform might look like the commonplace "little black dress," Star Athletica argued.

 
 
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