Copyrights and Cheerleading Uniforms

By Bruce Petrie

This week art and law came together in the Supreme Court in a case involving copyrights and cheerleader uniforms. (Varsity Brands vs. Star Athletica)

Copyrights generally can be used to protect artistic expression but not utility or functionality. To use Justice Roberts' example, you can stop someone from putting your copyrighted painting on a lunchbox, but you can't copyright the function of a lunchbox.

The question before the Court: is the design of the cheerleader outfits just aesthetic expression or do the zigzag stripes include a function? Varsity Brands says its designs are aesthetic and protected by copyright. The alleged infringer Star Athletica says no, you can't copyright the zigzags because they function as a uniform that tells the fans who the cheerleaders are and helps them look like cheerleaders.

The artful Justices name-dropped references to Picasso and Mondrian in their questions during oral argument, with Justice Kagan poking fun at Justice Breyer's analysis of dress designs. So "romantic" she quipped.

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