Donned in their plain black robes, the men and women of the U.S. Supreme Court spent an hour talking about stripes and zigzags on cheerleading uniforms. The case could have big repercussions for the fashion industry.
Varsity Brands, the country’s largest maker of cheerleading uniforms, wants to keep its patterns of zigzags and stripes copyrighted. But, a smaller company argues Varsity has no right to copyright the designs’ use on clothes.
The issue is tricky because clothes are normally difficult to copyright because their design is directly tied to their function, and federal law doesn’t allow designs to be copyrighted unless they can stand alone.
The smaller company, Star Athletics, in its brief, asks can “the stripes, chevrons, zigzags, and color blocks be recognized apart from a cheerleader uniform’s utilitarian aspects? No.” The company’s attorneys say a “uniform, without the blocks and stripes, looks exactly like the ubiquitous little black dress.”
Although Varsity’s direct competitors tend to side with Star, the lawsuit has support from the fashion industry, which has very limited copyright protections. Currently, the style or cut of a garment is not eligible, but a pattern on it, such as the impression of a Mondrian painting on a renowned Yves Saint Laurent dress, can be protected.
However, Varsity Brands argues its stripes can be separated from the dress, and used on other clothes and objects.
Varsity has filed multiple lawsuits against competitors, claiming copyright violations. Its competitors say that Varsity claims protection for items that are ubiquitous and too generic to merit copyrights.
“Varsity is saying that a very basic, simple sideline uniform with a chevron in the front” is capable of being copyrighted, said Karen Noseff Aldridge, the founder of the cheerleader uniform maker Rebel Athletic. “And that’s ridiculous.”
Her company, known for its customized outfits with a high ratio of crystals, has also received legal threats from Varsity. Ms. Noseff Aldridge said she was “actively ignoring” a cease-and-desist letter Varsity sent to her after a young customer, who was hired to promote Rebel Athletic apparel, posted photos to the company’s Snapchat account that showed herself in a group photo with other girls wearing Varsity uniforms.
The case could have major repercussions for both the $300 million cheerleading apparel market, and the even larger fashion industry. In fact, the Council of Fashion Designers of America filed an amicus brief supporting Varsity’s right to copyright the uniforms.