United States: Does Copyright Now Cover Functionality?

On March 22, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. regarding the scope of copyright protection for "pictorial, graphic or sculptural features" that have been added to useful articles—in this case, cheerleading uniforms.   The case has mostly gained attention because its facts crystalize the tension between allowing copyright to subsist in designs applied to useful articles, while at the same time preventing copyright law from controlling the useful article's functional aspects—which are not copyrightable.  Most observers thought the central issue would be how to define a useful article's function: Is a cheerleading uniform's function to clothe the body and absorb perspiration (in which case the design at issue has no real coverage on functionality), or to identify the wearer as a cheerleader (in which case the design has quite a lot to do with the uniform's functionality)?  Many, including these authors, expected the Court to sift through the ten different functionality tests that had been developed by the circuit courts and to either adopt one of the ten or develop some synthesis combining elements from different tests.  What we received instead was a Gordian knot-slicing opinion by Justice Thomas that either will have little impact on what is currently considered copyrightable—or potentially will allow all manner of copyright "creep" over a useful article's functionality.

We assume you are familiar with the facts and the issues.  If not, here are our posts on the underlying district court opinion, on the Supreme Court's decision to accept certification, and on an 11th Circuit opinion issued at around the same time as the 6th Circuit opinion.  In those posts, we discussed our expectation that the Court might 1) clarify how to assess a useful article's "functions"; 2) clarify what public policy decisions should be considered in assessing the protectability of useful article designs; 3) engage in the kind of clear line-drawing that it did in Dastar and that it refrained from doing in Mazer; and 4) clarify what constitutes "separability."  Somewhat surprisingly, the Court's opinion addressed only the fourth concern, and even then (consistent with Justice Thomas's "Scalian view" of statutory interpretation) the analysis was limited to generalized statements drawn from the actual words of the statute.

The Court stated that courts "need only be able to look at the useful article and spot some two- or three-dimensional element that appears to have pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities."  The Court did not address concerns over functionality, impact on the market, or any other public policy concerns.  Rather, under the Court's construction, separability is the beginning and end of the analysis—"In sum, a feature of the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright if, when identified and imagined apart from the useful article, it would qualify as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or when fixed in some other tangible medium."  The Court did not seem to care at all whether protection of the copyrightable feature would in turn impact, and thus extend protection to, the functionality of the article itself—"[t]he focus of the separability inquiry is on the extracted feature and not on any aspects of the useful article that remain after the imaginary extraction.  The statute does not require the decision-maker to imagine a fully functioning useful article without the artistic feature."  At the same time, the Court cautioned that the extension of copyright protection to artistic elements incorporated in useful products does not incorporate purely functional elements:   "To be clear, the only feature of the cheerleading uniform eligible for a copyright in this case is the two-dimensional work or art" and therefore, "Respondents have no right to prohibit any person from manufacturing a cheerleading uniform of identical shape, cut and dimensions to the one on which the decorations in this case appear."

In short, the formulation adopted by the Court creates uncertainty because it suggests that copyright protection over non-functional elements of a useful article may extend even beyond the scope of protection offered by design patents.  Design patent law, although permitting some functionality to be implicated by the design, protect against converting an ornamental feature into a utilitarian one that monopolizes a function.  See, e.g., Seiko Epson Corp. v. Nu-Kote Int'l, Inc., 190 F.3d 1360, 1368 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (Design patent statute requires "that the design must not be governed solely by function, i.e., that this is not the only possible form of the article that could perform its function.").  Under the Supreme Court's new standard, there appears to be no limitation on the extent to which a useful article's "functional capabilities" could become subject to copyright protection, so long as the copyrighted "pictorial, graphic or sculptural features" are found by the court to be non-functional.

This doctrine could have an enormous impact on industrial design.  Take, for example, the fin of a 1959 Cadillac.  Can the fins be imagined as standalone sculptures apart from the car?   And even if they can, is the separability requirement satisfied if the sculpture is merely understood to be a detached fin of a 1959 Cadillac as opposed to an independent artistic expression?  Or consider the recent example of a sculptural element added to a USB drive but designed in a way to promote ease of use in plugging into a computer.  Or of a software screen display that promotes intuitive use.  Even within the fashion industry, the impact of the Varsity Brand decision remains uncertain.  This was underscored by the Court's two dissenters—Justices Breyer and Kennedy—who purportedly applied the Court's test to reach the opposite result.

Under the Varsity Brand decision, considerations about the impact of subjective design decisions on functionality, or the impact on the market, or the impact on the underlying article itself, are now all irrelevant.  If the copyrighted matter can stand alone conceptually as a work of art, its application to a useful article is subject to copyright protection.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions