Arguably one of the “most vexing” questions in all of copyright law will be answered this year. Or at least that is what many in the furniture and fashion industry are hoping.
The question is what test should be used to determine when a feature of a “useful article” is protectable under the copyright laws. As of now, ten different tests have been established by the different federal Circuit Courts of Appeals. In Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands Inc., the US Supreme Court is expected to decide which of those tests is the right one, or it could choose another test altogether.
“Useful articles” include furnishings, fixtures, clothing, toys, and many other items including cheerleading uniforms, as presented in the Star Athletica case. A useful article, in so far as its purely utilitarian features go, is not capable of copyright protection. However, non-utilitarian features of such items can benefit from copyright protection, if that feature can be identified “separately” and exist “independently” from the useful aspect of the item. How to determine this – whether the feature is separable in this way – is the question being decided by the Supreme Court.
The articles in the Star case are cheerleading uniforms, and the feature at issue is the two dimensional designs on those uniforms.
Given the size of some of the industries involved, the Court’s decision could have huge consequences. Spending on apparel was estimated at more than $250 billion annually in the US alone, and the value of the US furniture market has been estimated at nearly $100 billion. By setting parameters on what features of useful articles can be protected, the decision could result in strategic shifts among industry participants engaged in creating, using or protecting unique designs. Stay tuned!