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Supreme Court Rules That Elements of Apparel Design are Copyrightable

In a closely watched case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that decorative elements of a cheerleading uniform can be protectable by U.S. copyright law.  The opinion was much anticipated because clothing has generally been considered to be a “useful article” that is not subject to copyright.  This issue has not been squarely addressed by the Supreme Court before today and lower courts were in, as the Court put it, “widespread disagreement” on the proper standard to apply.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Thomas and joined by four other justices.  Justice Thomas’ opinion held that an element of clothing could be protected if it “can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article” and it would qualify for copyright “if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated.”  The Court found that the designs represented on the surface of the cheerleading uniform could meet that standard in principle.  (The Court demurred on the issue of whether the particular designs in question are actually sufficiently original to be copyrightable and limited its ruling to surface designs in general.)

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