In looking at cases involving intellectual property rights, it's important to consider the wider implications that can cascade from one court decision. A precedent set in one patent or trademark case can have a ripple effect that shapes an entire industry. And if a matter rises to the Supreme Court, the decision handed down therein can provide a definitive stamp on a previous decision that fundamentally changes the course of the U.S. economy in some slight degree.
The Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a case between two manufacturers of cheerleading uniforms. In the case of Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands, the latter is suing the former, claiming that Star Athletica has misappropriated the stripes, zig-zags, and chevrons used in Varsity Brand's designs. While the matter of simple infringement is fairly commonplace in legal proceedings involving IP, the considerations in this case could have far-reaching implications for the fashion industry.
When it comes to fashion design, clothing creators are able to copyright the artistically creative elements of the design, but not any of those related to the function or utility of the garment. And the matter of what is fashion and what is function in regards to cheerleading uniforms has been less than clear. The original lower court ruling went in favor of the defendant Star Atletica in determining that the stripes and zig-zags of the uniform were a fundamental part of any cheerleading outfit; while the appeals court sided with Varsity Brands, stating that a cheerleading uniform devoid of color or design would still qualify and could function for the necessary purpose.
While cheerleading uniforms might not represent the height of artistic expression in fashion, the court's decision in the matter could have wide ranging effects on the industry at large. A ruling that stripes and other design elements are utilitarian and as such not eligible for copyright opens the door for so-called copycats to create knockoff versions of popular designs. But such a question raises larger issues as to what separates form and function in clothing, when design can be used in a utilitarian manner to shape or alter appearance.
However the court rules on the matter, it shouldn't be lost on either legal observers and aesthetes that the future of fashion rests in the hands of people who wear loose black robes every day.