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Vogue / DPK in the News

What the Supreme Court’s First Ruling on Fashion Copyrights Means for the Runway

On Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled in the Star Athletica v. Varsity Brandscase, which centered on the issue of copyrighting the chevron, stripe, and other patterns of cheerleading uniforms. To laypeople, this was the case that gave the world the justices’ unforgettable banter about fashion and style. “The clothes on the hanger do nothing. The clothes on the woman do everything. And that is, I think, what fashion is about,” said Justice Stephen Breyer during an argument with Justice Elena Kagan, who responded, “That’s so romantic.” But, to those inside the fashion world, this was a landmark that has potential to resonate in the industry for years to come. Not only is the suit the first time the Supreme Court has ever heard a case centering on apparel design copyrights, but the 6–2 ruling in favor of Varsity Brands allows elements of a garment’s design to be protected by copyright law. In the Court’s syllabus, it declares: “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.’ ”

To help translate the government legalese, Vogue spoke with Joseph Mueller, a lawyer at Dewey Pegno & Kramarsky LLP, a litigation boutique that regularly handles copyright disputes. Mueller wrote, “The Court decided that copyright law can sometimes protect aesthetic elements of designs for cheerleader uniforms. This sounds straightforward, but a little background shows why this case was complicated. Copyright law protects certain types of artistic and creative expressions. On the other end of the intellectual-property spectrum is patent law, which protects innovations based on their usefulness and novelty. This case dealt with a tricky middle ground: Copyright law can protect aesthetic features of a ‘design for a useful article’—but only if they are distinct enough from the article’s useful or functional aspect.”


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