On January 30, 2018, the USC Gould Law School presented “The Future of Fashion,” a panel discussion co-hosted by the IP & Technology Law and Art Law Societies at USC. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney Aleen Tomassian was one of the expert panelists invited to discuss the current state of intellectual property law as it affects the fashion industry, and to discuss how recent court decisions affect the future of the industry.
A major point of discussion involved the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent Varsity Brands v. Star Athletica decision, a copyright case that concerned design features on cheerleading uniforms. Historically, articles of clothing have not generally afforded copyright protection because they are considered “useful articles.” But the Supreme Court held that the design features of the uniforms in issue were protectable because they were works of art which could be imagined separately from the useful article into which they were incorporated. Many have suggested that the holding in Star Athletica signals that broad copyright protection would be available for articles of clothing. But the USC panel discussion made clear that Star Athletica affirmed that copyright protection is available for design elements as distinct from “useful articles,” and the recognized protection is not available to clothing in general.
The panel addressed the unique intellectual property issues that the fashion industry faces. There was a broad discussion about the economic and moral impact of “copycat” designs on society and the effects of “knockoffs” on innovation. Since fashion designs are not specifically protected under U.S. law, the conversation highlighted how attorneys skilled in fashion law use a combination of available forms of protection, including copyright, trademark, trade dress and design and utility patents. A recent example is the pending case of Puma SE v. Forever 21, Inc., USDC Central District of California Case No. 2:17-cv-02523, in which Puma asserts that it has distinctive shoe designs in a line called Fenty Shoes that is promoted by singer Rhianna. Puma contends that Forever 21 engaged in deliberate copying of some of its Fenty Shoes designs, notably the popular “Creeper”, “Fur Slide” and “Bow Slide” models. To protect its designs, Puma alleged infringement of design patents, trade dress and false designation of origin under the Lanham Act, and copyright. Puma’s copyright claims attempt to leverage the Star Athletica decision by contending that certain elements of the Fenty Shoes “can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional works of art separate from the Fenty Shoes” and “would qualify as protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works – either on their own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression.” Under the Star Athletica standard, to allow this type of copyright infringement claim, the court will have to determine that “the separately identified feature has the capacity to exist apart from the utilitarian aspects” of the shoe. “If the feature is not capable of existing as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work once separated from the useful article” – the shoe – then it is a utilitarian feature and not subject to copyright protection.
The attorneys at Conkle, Kremer & Engel have years of experience navigating the complex legal and intellectual property issues faced by clients in the fashion industry. Our attorneys help clients protect their brands to ensure their continued success in this demanding and fast-paced industry.