There’s almost no limit to what can be 3D printed today. The print media and the web are festooned with stories about the ever-expanding universe of wares that can be extruded, fused or cured into existence layer-by-layer. But even the most bright-eyed 3D printing enthusiast will tell you that he or she doesn’t think of cheerleading uniforms as one of this universe’s brightest stars. No doubt it’s possible to 3D print a cheerleading uniform – someone has surely done it somewhere – but members of cheer squads don’t regularly scour the pages of Shapeways and Thingiverse when they’re ready to get clad for a new season of exuberant aerobics.
Nonetheless, these uniforms are now at the center of a court case that could have significant implications for 3D printing and design. In 2010, the international cheerleading uniform supplier Varsity Brands sued the much smaller supplier Star Athletica on the grounds that the latter’s uniforms infringed upon its copyrighted designs. Last year, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision in the suit that reverberated throughout the wonky world of copyright law. Copyright protects creative expression, and cheerleading uniforms are pretty indisputably utilitarian. Nonetheless, the court found that Varsity Brands’ uniforms could be copyrighted because they contain creative elements – stripes and squiggly lines – that can be separated from their utilitarian essence. In other words, the court offered a clear copyright proposition: a design that’s not wholly functional can enjoy copyright protection. The ruling will soon be tested by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 6th Circuit’s ruling is relevant to the 3D printing world because it means any 3D design that has non-utilitarian elements may be eligible for copyright protection. If this were the case, it would elevate the litigation risks facing creators. Realizing this, the aforementioned online 3D printing marketplace Shapeways, 3D printer manufacturer Formlabs and Canada-based 3D scanner manufacturer Matter and Form sent an amicus brief to the Supreme Court asking it to clarify the copyrightability of functional items with design aspects. The firms suggest in the brief that without such clarity, a “chill” will remain on 3D innovation.
It will be interesting to see what the Supremes do. Stay tuned to the District Dispatch for updates.