(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday said the stripes, zigzags, chevrons and colors on uniforms worn by cheerleaders across the country can be copyrighted under federal law.
The 2-1 decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati revived a lawsuit by Varsity Brands Inc, one of the largest U.S. makers of cheerleader uniforms, that accused rival Star Athletica LLC of infringing five of its designs.
Writing for the majority, Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore said Varsity could try to copyright its graphic designs because they were separate from the uniforms' "utilitarian" aspects, including their ability to cover the body, draw away moisture, and let cheerleaders do jumps, kicks and flips.
"Indeed, nothing (save perhaps good taste) prevents Varsity from printing or painting its designs, framing them, and hanging the resulting prints on the wall as art," Moore wrote.
Wednesday's decision reversed a March 2014 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland in Memphis, Tennessee.
The appeals court entered a judgment in Varsity's favor as to whether its designs were "copyrightable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works."
It also revived several state law claims, including whether Star violated Tennessee's unfair competition law. The case was returned to Cleland for further proceedings.
Circuit Judge David McKeague dissented and urged Congress or the Supreme Court to clarify copyright law with regard to garment design.
"The law in this area is a mess - and it has been for a long time," he wrote.
Varsity is based in Memphis, and Star in Chesterfield, Missouri.
Grady Garrison, a lawyer for Varsity, said in a phone interview that the appeals court's rationale could cover designs on other kinds of clothing.
"The key issue was whether two-dimensional art on the surface of cheerleading uniforms could be protected as graphic works of art," he said. "We're very happy with the result."
Steven Crosby, a lawyer for Star, said his client's manufacture of cheerleading uniforms, which are three-dimensional, was not prohibited under copyright law. He said Star will defend against Varsity's claims.
The case is Varsity Brands Inc et al v. Star Athletica LLC, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-5237
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler and Grant McCool