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Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands

A feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article, and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated. That test is satisfied here. Pp. 3–17.

(a) Separability analysis is necessary in this case. Respondents claim that two-dimensional surface decorations are always separable, even without resorting to a §101 analysis, because they are “on a useful article” rather than “designs of a useful article.” But this argument is inconsistent with §101’s text. ”[P]ictorial” and “graphic” denote two-dimensional features such as pictures, paintings, or drawings. Thus, by providing protection for “pictorial, graphical, and sculptural works” incorporated into the “design of a useful article,” §101 necessarily contemplates that such a design can include two dimensional features. This Court will not adjudicate in the first instance the Government’s distinct argument against applying separability analysis, which was neither raised below nor advanced here by any party. Pp. 4–6.

(b) Whether a feature incorporated into a useful article “can be identified separately from,” and is “capable of existing independently of,” the article’s “utilitarian aspects” is a matter of “statutory interpretation.” Mazer v. Stein, 347 U. S. 201, 214. Pp. 6–10.

(1) Section 101’s separate-identification requirement is met if the decision maker is able to look at the useful article and spot some two or three-dimensional element that appears to have pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities. To satisfy the independent-existence requirement, the feature must be able to exist as its own pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work once it is imagined apart from the useful article. If the feature could not exist as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work on its own, it is simply one of the article’s utilitarian aspects. And to qualify as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work on its own, the feature cannot be a useful article or “[a]n article that is normally a part of a useful article,” §101. Neither could one claim a copyright in a useful article by creating a replica of it in another medium. Pp. 7–8.

(2) The statute as a whole confirms this interpretation. Section 101, which protects art first fixed in the medium of a useful article, is essentially the mirror image of §113(a), which protects art first fixed in a medium other than a useful article and subsequently applied to a useful article. Together, these provisions make clear that copyright protection extends to pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works regardless of whether they were created as freestanding art or as features of useful articles. P. 8.

(3) This interpretation is also consistent with the Copyright Act’s history. In Mazer, a case decided under the 1909 Copyright Act, the Court held that respondents owned a copyright in a statuette created for use as a lamp base. In so holding, the Court approved a Copyright Office regulation extending protection to works of art that might also serve a useful purpose and held that it was irrelevant to the copyright inquiry whether the statuette was initially created as a freestanding sculpture or as a lamp base. Soon after, the Copyright Office enacted a regulation implementing Mazer’s holding that anticipated the language of §101, thereby introducing the modern separability test to copyright law. Congress essentially lifted the language from those post-Mazer regulations and placed it in §101 of the 1976 Act. Pp. 8–10.

(c) Applying the proper test here, the surface decorations on the cheerleading uniforms are separable and therefore eligible for copyright protection. First, the decorations can be identified as features having pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities. Second, if those decorations were separated from the uniforms and applied in another medium, they would qualify as two-dimensional works of art under §101. Imaginatively removing the decorations from the uniforms and applying them in another medium also would not replicate the uniform itself.

The dissent argues that the decorations are ineligible for copyright protection because, when imaginatively extracted, they form a picture of a cheerleading uniform. Petitioner similarly claims that the decorations cannot be copyrighted because, even when extracted from the useful article, they retain the outline of a cheerleading uniform. But this is not a bar to copyright. Just as two-dimensional fine art correlates to the shape of the canvas on which it is painted, two dimensional applied art correlates to the contours of the article on which it is applied. The only feature of respondents’ cheerleading uniform eligible for a copyright is the two-dimensional applied art on the surface of the uniforms. Respondents may prohibit the reproduction only of the surface designs on a uniform or in any other medium of expression. Respondents have no right to prevent anyone from manufacturing a cheerleading uniform that is identical in shape, cut, or dimensions to the uniforms at issue here. Pp. 10–12.

(d) None of the objections raised by petitioner or the Government is meritorious. Pp. 12–17.

(1) Petitioner and the Government focus on the relative utility of the plain white uniform that would remain if the designs were physically removed from the uniform. But the separability inquiry focuses on the extracted feature and not on any aspects of the useful article remaining after the imaginary extraction. The statute does not require the imagined remainder to be a fully functioning useful article at all. Nor can an artistic feature that would be eligible for copyright protection on its own lose that protection simply because it was first created as a feature of the design of a useful article, even if it makes that article more useful. This has been the rule since Mazer, and it is consistent with the statute’s explicit protection of “applied art.” In rejecting petitioner’s view, the Court necessarily abandons the distinction between “physical” and “conceptual” separability adopted by some courts and commentators. Pp. 12–15.

(2) Petitioner also suggests incorporating two “objective” components into the test—one requiring consideration of evidence of the creator’s design methods, purposes, and reasons, and one looking to the feature’s marketability. The Court declines to incorporate these components because neither is grounded in the statute’s text. Pp. 15–16.

(3) Finally, petitioner claims that protecting surface decorations is inconsistent with Congress’ intent to entirely exclude industrial design from copyright. But Congress has given limited copyright protection to certain features of industrial design. Approaching the statute with presumptive hostility toward protection for industrial design would undermine that choice. In any event, the test adopted here does not render the underlying uniform eligible for copyright protection. Pp. 16–17.

799 F. 3d 468, affirmed.

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