Term Year 2016

Star Athletica, L. L. C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc.

The Copyright Act of 1976 makes “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” of the “design of a useful article” eligible for copyright protection as artistic works if those features “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” 17 U. S. C. §101. Respondents have more than 200 copyright registrations for twodimensional designs—consisting of various lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes—appearing on the surface of the cheerleading uniforms that they design, make, and sell. They sued petitioner, who also markets cheerleading uniforms, for copyright infringement.

The District Court granted petitioner summary judgment, holding that the designs could not be conceptually or physically separated from the uniforms and were therefore ineligible for copyright protection. In reversing, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the graphics could be “identified separately” and were “capable of existing independently” of the uniforms under §101. Held: A feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article, and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated. That test is satisfied here. Pp. 3–17. (a) Separability analysis is necessary in this case.