Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, dissented, arguing that even under the majority's test, the designs can not be perceived as separate from the cheerleading uniform. (Case No. 15-866), the court ruled 6-2 that Varsity Brands' uniform designs at issue may be copyrighted.
Applying this test to the surface decorations on the cheerleading uniforms is straightforward.
The majority disagreed. In an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court held that if the graphic designs can be imagined as separate entities eligible for copyright on their own - and in a footnote, Thomas said the court took no position on whether Varsity's stripes and chevrons meet that test - then the fact they also appear integral to the function of the uniform doesn't matter.
The Varsity Brands designs that started the legal battle.
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Varsity Brands had sued Star Athletica for infringing on five of its proprietary cheerleading uniform designs. To qualify for copyright protection, images must be able to stand alone as "pictorial, graphic or sculptural works", federal law says. His opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
Jeff Webb, founder and chairman of Varsity Brands, said in a statement, "Today's favorable ruling represents the culmination of years of hard work to protect our original design, and we are of course gratified by the outcome and what it means for our business. They depict clothing. They depict the useful articles of which the designs are inextricable parts".
Justice Ginsburg concurred with the majority, but would have found the designs to be copyrightable pictorial or graphics works that happened to be reproduced on useful articles - negating the need to parse the language of 17 U.S.C. § 101.
Besides the case's implications for cheerleader uniforms and, more broadly, the garment industry, some education-related groups had filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Star Athletica.