Cheerleading company can get copyrights, pursue competitors, Supreme Court says

19 12 2017

The Supreme Court issued a 5-2 opinion (PDF) today allowing cheerleading uniforms to be copyrighted. The case, Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands, is expected to have broad effect in the fashion world and beyond. A group of 3D printing companies had also asked the high court to take up the case, asking for clarity on how to separate creative designs, which are copyrightable, from utilitarian objects that are not.

The case began when Varsity Brands, the world’s largest manufacturer of cheerleading and dance-team uniforms, accused Star Athletica of infringing its copyrighted designs. Star Athletica fought back in court, saying the chevrons and stripes on the uniforms had a utilitarian function—namely, to identify cheerleaders as cheerleaders. Noting that Varsity Brands had sued or acquired several other competitors, Star’s lawyers complained that Varsity’s aggressive litigation led to high uniform prices, “to the detriment of families everywhere.”

The district court sided with Star, saying the designs couldn’t be separated from the uniform’s utilitarian function. But a panel of judges at the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit disagreed, saying there was no utilitarian need for stripes and chevrons and that “a plain white cheerleading top and plain white skirt still cover the body” and allow for jumps, kicks, and flips.


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