Varsity Brands sued its competitor Star Athletica for copyright infringement of its designs that appear in cheerleading uniforms. The district court ruled a summary judgment of noninfringement finding that the designs were not separable from the utilitarian function of the uniform because the designs served the function of identifying the garments as cheerleading uniforms. The Sixth Circuit reversed finding the designs could be identified separately and were capable of existing independently of the uniforms. Star Athletica appealed to the Supreme Court.
In a 6-2 decision the Court affirmed the Sixth Circuit decision that cheerleading uniforms are copyright protectable holding that a feature incorporated into a design of a useful article is eligible for protection only if the feature can be perceived as a 2- or 3-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article and would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic or sculptural work. Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas reasoned that the decisionmaker need not imagine a fully functioning useful article without the artistic feature but only that the separated feature qualify as a non-useful pictorial, graphic or sculptural work on its own. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer noted that the design features here are not separable from the cheerleader uniform because after they are removed in the imagination, there remains a picture of a cheerleader uniform.
Full text of the opinion is available here.