R.I.P. Conceptual Separability Test

The US Supreme Court held on March 22, 2017 that a feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection “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.” The case is Star Athletica LLC v .Varsity Brands. Justice Thomas wrote the opinion of the Supreme Court.

Conceptual Separability is Much Safer

Readers of this blog may remember that this case is about whether cheerleading uniforms can be protected by copyright. Both parties are creating and selling cheerleading uniforms. Varsity Brands has registered some 200 copyrights for two-dimensional designs appearing on the surface of their uniforms and other garments. It sued Star Athletica for copyright infringement, claiming that its competitor had copied five of its designs protected by copyright. The Western District Court of Tennessee granted summary judgment to Star Athletica, reasoning the designs could not be protectable by copyright, as they could not be separated from the utilitarian function of the uniforms. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding Varsity’s designs to be copyrightable graphic works. The Supreme Court affirmed.

UniformUseful articles cannot be protected by copyright, but a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work incorporated in the useful article can be protected if it is separable from the useful article. However, such design must be capable of being “identified separately from, and [must be] capable of existing independently of the utilitarian aspects of the article,” 17 U.S.C. § 101. The design can be physically separable or “conceptually separable” from its utilitarian aspect. Physical separability occurs if the feature seeking copyright protection can “be physically separated from the article by ordinary means while leaving the utilitarian aspects of the article completely intact,” Compendium §924.2(B). This is easily understandable, but conceptual separability, which applies if physical separability by ordinary means is not possible, is the stuff [bad] dreams [of IP attorneys] are made of. Or, at least, it was, as today’s opinion signals its demise.

The first part of the new test requires that the design seeking copyright protection must be able to be perceived as a two or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article. This was the case here. Justice Breyer dissented from the majority, reasoning that the designs on the cheerleading uniforms are not separable because if one would remove them from the uniforms and place them on another medium of expression, such as a canvas, it would create “pictures of cheerleader uniforms.” But Justice Thomas wrote that this does not prevent these deigns to be protected by copyright, because

“[j]ust 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” (p. 11).

The second part of the new test requires that the design must be able to exist apart from the utilitarian aspect of the article, as its own pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. If it can’t, then it is one of the useful article’s utilitarian aspects. Thus, the design itselfcannot be itself a useful article (p. 7).

This interpretation is consistent with Mazer v. Stein, a 1954 Supreme Court case studied by all U.S. copyright students. Justice Thomas noted that two of its holdings are relevant in our case (p. 9).  The Court held in 1954 that a work of art which serves a useful purpose can be protected by copyright. In the case of Mazer v. Stein, it as was statue which served as a lamp base. The Court also held in 1954 that a work of art is copyrightable even if it was first created as a useful article. Justice Thomas specified that, in our case, the Court interpreted the Copyright Act in a way which is consistent with Mazer v. Stein as today’s opinion “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.”

R.I.P. conceptual separability test. Justice Thomas explains it is no longer needed, as “[c]onceptual separability applies if the feature physically could not be removed from the useful article… Because separability does not require the underlying useful article to remain, the physical-conceptual distinction is unnecessary” (p.15).

Justice Thomas clarified the scope of the opinion as such:

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” (p. 12).

But what makes a particular uniform feature of stripes and chevrons particular, is it because they are applied on the uniform, or because the uniform is cut in such a way and uses such contrasting colors  on which the designs are appearing?

Justice Ginsburg concurred, but she took the view that “[c]onsideration of [the separability] test is unwarranted because the designs at issue are not designs of useful articles. Instead, the designs are themselves copyrightable pictorial or graphic works reproduced on useful articles… [and may thus] gain copyright protection as such” (p. 23 and p. 24).

Should we cheer? Time will tell.

This post was first published on The 1709 Blog.

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