On 22 March 22 2017, in the case of Star Athletica LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc., et al, No. 15-866, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled, in a 6-2 decision, that design elements of a cheerleading uniform may be protected under copyright law, even though the uniform has a utilitarian function.

It is a well-known tenet under United States copyright law that apparel is outside the scope of the Copyright Act of 1976, which bars protection for works of authorship that possess utilitarian functions.  However, §101 of the Copyright Act carves out a limited exception, namely that “pictorial, graphic or sculptural features” of the design of a useful article are entitled to copyright protection if they “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.”

Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands involves copyright infringement of cheerleading uniforms designed by Varsity Brands, considered to be the leader in the market, copied by its rival, Star Athletica.  The majority opinion, written by Justice Thomas, sided with Varsity Brands, and ruled that the two-dimensional pictorial design, consisting of chevron, zigzags, stripes and colorful shapes, applied to Varsity Brands’ uniforms was deserving of copyright protection under §101 of the Copyright Act.

This case has elicited microscopic scrutiny by the fashion industry. Continue Reading Supreme Court of the United States: Cheerleading Uniforms Can be Copyrightable: Star Athletic LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc.

The question of whether a sequence of exercises, such as yoga poses or dance moves, can be copyrighted has occupied the attention of international courts, scholars and copyright offices for some time. In late 2015, the issue received some media attention when yoga guru Bikram Choudhur tried to gain a US copyright in a signature sequence of yoga poses but failed before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Curcuit. Despite the effort of international copyright conventions, the question of copyrightability essentially remains a matter of national law. Continue Reading The Copyrightability of Yoga Poses, Dance Moves and Exercise Routines

According to the code of ethics of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, a culinary professional must not knowingly “appropriate […] any recipe or other intellectual property belonging to another without the proper recognition.” And, in addition to the ethical, there are legal issues. While copying culinary creations might not sound like a big deal to millennial food bloggers and vloggers, lawsuits—sometimes with high stakes—have been filed over (mis)appropriated recipes. But whether claims to a signature dish will hold up in court is a different question and will likely depend on the scope of protection of the applicable copyright law(s). Continue Reading Your IP Valentine: Can Recipes Be Protected by Copyright?

It is only one example of many, but it grasps the very essence of the issue: In 2013, a New York City coffee shop owner got a tattoo on his right hand saying “I [coffee cup] NY.” Cool, if you are a tattoo fan who also loves coffee. Then he started using an illustration of his tattooed hand as a logo for his shop. Not cool, if you are the New York State Department of Economic Development, which served him with a cease-and-desist letter. In the eyes of the state agency, the use of the tattoo design on the shop’s window was less a reference or a tribute to the famous “I love NY” slogan but rather a plain case of trademark infringement.

Yes, copyright and trademark issues may even emerge from someplace as personal as your skin and the ink decorating it. But there is more to the story. Continue Reading Tattoo Copyright Cases Give an Inkling of What’s to Come

When cobwebs and tombstones start to show up in your neighborhood, probably something wicked is coming your way—except that one night of the year, on Halloween. Even though Halloween involves frightening things—haunted houses, the undead, tricks in response to no treats—it is ultimately about carefree fun. And there’s candy! But if you are in a Halloween-related business, there is a genuinely scary side to the holiday—IP issues that, if ignored, could lead to a wicked lawsuit. Continue Reading Avoid the Halloween “Trick” of an Intellectual Property Lawsuit

On 31 May 2016, the Regional Court of Berlin (15 O 428/15) ruled that photographs of public domain paintings ‎are, in principle, protected by a copyright-related right in section 72 of the German Copyright Act. The case involved a request to take down several pictures hosted on Wikimedia Commons as public domain images that had been taken by a photographer employed by the Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany. Responding to the judgment, the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Germany wrote that the decision did not pay adequate attention to the long-term damage this judgment represents to accessing public domain works.

The Wikimedia Foundation already announced its plans to appeal the case to the next level of appellate court—the Kammergericht Berlin—and, if necessary, to take it all the way to the Federal Court of Justice. Continue Reading Wikimedia Loses German Copyright Case Over Photographs of Public Domain Paintings

On 23 June 2016, a US federal jury concluded that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did not copy the opening guitar riff in “Stairway to Heaven” from the song “Taurus,” an earlier tune by US rock band Spirit. The latter song, a 2-minute 27-second instrumental, was recorded nearly four years before “Stairway,” and was released on Spirit’s self-titled debut album in 1968.

The conclusion of the “Stairway” case comes a little more than a year after a federal jury in Los Angeles, California, awarded millions to R&B-soul singer Marvin Gaye’s family. The jury decided that recording stars Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had plagiarized Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” in creating their hit single “Blurred Lines.” Continue Reading Led Zeppelin Prevails in US Copyright Case Over Their Iconic Ballad “Stairway to Heaven”

A Spanish man using the pseudonym “Frikidoctor” has been posting videos to a major video-sharing web site that detail the events of several upcoming episodes of a popular medieval fantasy TV series, including some key plot twists. Frikidoctor’s video “predictions” (which later turned out to be remarkably accurate) were also translated to English and posted to Reddit. At some point, the videos had been taken down from the web site, marked with “copyright claim by [a major cable TV network].” Reportedly, the network is asserting that these videos are infringing on its copyright even if some of the videos do not contain any actual video footage or stills from their hit series. After the videos were removed, Redditors began fervent discussions about whether or not the network was entitled to remove those videos. Some legal experts claim that by giving detailed plot information, one could possibly be liable for copyright infringement. This is, however, not clear. Interestingly, the web site has since restored the videos. Continue Reading Cable TV Network Has Show Spoilers Removed from Video-Sharing Web Site—Are Plot Elements Copyrightable?

Snapchat, the fast-growing social media network/messaging app, has spawned some controversy over how copyright law is interpreted in the United Kingdom. In a recent Q&A session with members of Parliament, the British government was asked whether it will take steps to prevent Snapchat images from being made public without the image owner’s consent. In his written response dated 24 March 2016, the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, Ed Vaizey, answered that “[u]nder UK copyright law, it would be unlawful for a Snapchat user to copy an image and make it available to the public without the consent of the image owner. The image owner would be able to sue anyone who does this for copyright infringement.” Continue Reading Screenshotting in Snapchat – Copyright Law Concerns

In October 2015, the Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany, filed a lawsuit in the Regional Court of Berlin against the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Germany. The suit concerns copyright claims related to 17 photographs of works of art on display at the museum. The photographs were commissioned by the museum and were later uploaded to Wikimedia Commons — an online database of works distributed under creative commons licenses — by a third party. Continue Reading German Museum Sues Wikimedia Over Uploading Photographs of Public Domain Paintings