We all root for a single conceptual separability test

On 2 May 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to answer this question: “[w]hat is the appropriate test to determine when a feature of a useful article is protectable under § 101 of the Copyright Act”? The answer is likely to impact the U.S. fashion industry, as it may make copyright protection of designs easier or more difficult.

Clothes cannot be protected by copyright in the U.S. because they are un-copyrightable useful works, but some of their features or elements may be protected if they can be identified separately and exist independently of the utilitarian aspect of the garment. However, the circuit courts are using different tests to decide whether a particular feature can be conceptually separated from the useful article and thus protected by copyright.

Now, an ongoing dispute between two cheerleader uniform companies over whether the designs adorning uniforms can be protected by copyright will allow the Supreme Court to unify the conceptual separability test and provide clearer guidelines to designers seeking to protect at least some features of the clothes they create.

Varsity Brands (Varsity) designs, manufactures and sells cheerleading uniforms. It registered its copyright in five two-dimensional designs featuring various combinations of color blocks and stripes, some forming chevrons. In 2010, competitor Star Athletica (Star) published a catalog of cheerleading uniforms which Varsity believed to be infringing of its designs. Varsity filed a copyright infringement suit in the Western District Court of Tennessee against Star, which moved for summary judgment, claiming that the pictorial, graphical or sculptural elements of Varsity’s designs were not physically or conceptually separable from the utilitarian functions of the cheerleading uniforms.

Indeed, while §102(a)(5) of the Copyright Act expressively protects pictorial, graphic and sculptural works, useful articles are not protected by copyright. §101 of the Copyright Act defines a useful article as “an article having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information.” However, §101 of the Copyright Act also states that a useful article may be protected if it “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.”

On 1 March 2014, the Western District Court of Tennessee entered summary judgment in favor of Star, finding that the aesthetic features of the uniforms had merged with their functional features and were thus not conceptually separated from the utilitarian uniforms. Varsity appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which reversed the judgment. Star then filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, which was granted.

Physical separability

In order to find out whether a particular design which is part of a useful article can nevertheless be protected by copyright, courts determine if the design is separable, whether physically or conceptually, from the utilitarian aspects of the article or sculptural work.
§ 924.2(A) of the Copyright Office Compendium defines physical-separability as meaning “that the useful article contains pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be physically separated from the article by ordinary means while leaving the utilitarian aspects of the article completely intact.” This stems from the 1954 Mazer v. Stein Supreme Court case, where a statuette which served as a lamp base was held to be copyrightable.

Conceptual separability

However, it is often not possible to physically separate a design from the utilitarian article, and thus courts also use a conceptual separability test. However, there is not just one separability test. Petitioner’s brief to the Supreme Court notes that there are nine conceptual separability tests, and that the Ninth Circuit rejected all of them in our case to create a tenth one.

For instance, the Second Circuit uses the Kieselstein-Cord test and checks whether the artistic features are “primary” and the utilitarian features “subsidiary.” The Seventh Circuit uses the aesthetic influence test, first applied in Pivot Point v. Charlene Products, Inc., where conceptual separability exists if the elements at stake “reflect the independent, artistic judgment of the designer.”
Law professors weighted in on the issue as well. For instance, Professor Paul Goldstein proposed a test to find out whether “a pictorial, graphic or sculptural feature incorporated in the design of a useful article is conceptually separable if it can stand on its own as work of art traditionally conceived, and if the useful article in which it is embodied would be equally useful without it.” Professor David Nimmer proposed the marketability test, where “conceptual severability exists when there is any substantial likelihood that even if the article had no utilitarian use, it would still be marketable to some significant segment of the community simply because of its aesthetic qualities.”

Varsity had unsuccessfully argued in front of the federal district court that because it sketches uniform designs independently of functional influences, the designs are conceptually separable from the utilitarian features of the uniforms, and thus protected by copyright under the Seventh Circuit’s aesthetic influence test. Instead, the district court found the Second Circuit Jovani Fashion Inc. v. Fiesta Fashions case persuasive, where the court had found the designs of prom dresses not protectable by copyright, because the decorative choices made to create the dresses had merged with their function of covering the body in an attractive way. The Second Circuit noted that the “design elements are used precisely to enhance the functionality of the dress as clothing for a special occasion.” Similarly, the District Court found in Varsity, citing Jovani, that a cheerleading uniform, just like a prom dress, is “a garment specifically meant to cover the body in an attractive way for a special occasion” and concluded that “a cheerleading uniform loses its utilitarian function as a cheerleading uniform when it lacks all design and is merely a blank canvas.”

The Sixth Circuit conceptual separability test

The Sixth Circuit created a five-part test to find whether a particular design is copyrightable. First, the court must find out whether a design is a pictorial, graphic or sculptural work. Such was the case here. Then then court must find out if the design is the design of a useful article. Such was the case here as well. Thirdly, the court must find out “[w]hat are the utilitarian aspects of the useful article.” The Sixth Circuit found that the function of the designs was to decorate the uniforms, noting that it is “well established” that fabric designs are protected by copyright. The fourth part of the test asks whether the viewer of a design can identify the pictorial, graphic or sculptural features separately from the utilitarian aspects of the useful article. The Sixth Circuit answered affirmatively, noting that “[t]he top and skirt are still easily identified as cheerleading uniforms without any stripes, chevrons, zigzags or color-blocking.” Finally, the fifth part of the test asks whether the design features exist independently of the utilitarian aspects of the useful article. The Sixth Circuit answered affirmatively, as the designs of the uniform are “wholly unnecessary to the performance of the garment’s ability to cover the body, permit free movement and wick moisture.”

The Sixth Circuit concluded that because the graphic features of Varsity’s designs can be identified separately and are capable of existing independently of the utilitarian asserts of the uniforms, they can be protected by copyright. It gave as an example the famous Mondrian dress created by Yves Saint Laurent, and noted that “the graphic features of Varsity’ cheerleading-uniforms designs are more like fabric design than dress design.”

Toward a single conceptual separability test

It is likely that the Supreme Court will coin its own conceptual separability test, which will then have to be used by all the courts. The fashion industry has much at stake in this case, as such a test may help designers to claim copyright protection for clothes and other useful works, such as handbags or shoes, or could make claiming copyright protection even more difficult.

This article was first published on the TTLF Newsletter on Transatlantic Antitrust and IPR Developments published by the Stanford-Vienna Transatlantic Technology Law Forum.

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