What makes a cheerleading uniform, a cheerleading uniform? Stripes? Zigzags? What turns a person in a crop top and skirt into a recognizable cheerleader? These are the questions that the United States Supreme Court will likely address in Star Athletica LLC v. Varsity Brands Inc. (Case No. 15-866), which it granted certiorari on May 2, 2016.

The case started when Varsity Brands, Inc. (“Varsity”) believed that Star Athletica, LLC (“Star”) was selling cheerleading uniforms very similar to Varsity’s. Varsity has multiple copyrights on graphic designs that appear on its cheerleading uniforms and warm ups. Star, however, does not believe that the graphic designs for cheerleading uniforms can be protected under the Copyright Act.

The District Court of the Western District of Tennessee agreed with Star and found that Varsity did not have valid copyrights for the graphic designs. The district court explained that cheerleading uniforms are not cheerleading uniforms without the stripes and chevrons, zigzags, and color blocks, so the design of the uniforms is not protectable under the Copyright Act. Varsity appealed the District Court’s decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Sixth Circuit disagreed with the District Court and, instead, found that the designs of the uniforms are protectable under the Copyright Act.

Now it is up to the Supreme Court to determine if the graphic designs of a cheerleading uniform are protectable under the Copyright Act. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on this case on October 31, 2016. Based on the Justices’ questions, they seemed concerned about whether Varsity would have a monopoly on the cheerleading uniform business if the designs are protectable under the Copyright Act. Star’s lawyers argued that finding that Varsity’s design copyrights are valid would mean that schools would have no choice in where to purchase the uniforms.

This decision not only affects cheerleading uniforms, but may also impact other sporting teams for schools. Some of the other implications that this decision may have on school districts is:

  • Whether there would be a monopoly on all sporting apparel for schools;
  • Whether schools may still maintain a choice in where to purchase its other sporting apparel; and
  • How this decision will impact the prices for sporting uniforms.

The Court is expected to render a decision in spring of 2017 and be sure to check back to our blog for the latest on this and other Supreme Court decisions impacting school districts.