The immediate question for the justices at a Supreme Court argument on  was whether designs on cheerleaders’ uniforms were subject to copyright protection. As the argument progressed, though, it became increasingly clear that the case raised broader issues, with vast financial consequences for the fashion industry and deep philosophical implications for how clothing signifies meaning. “For a hundred and more than that years, the fashion industry has not enjoyed copyright protection,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said. “On the women’s side, I believe, $225 billion, at least, worth of clothes are sold every year. If suddenly in this case we say that dresses are copyrightable, and they are because every one of them has some design, perhaps we’ll double the price of women’s clothes.” Addressing a lawyer for the plaintiff, Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed that a ruling in his favor could transform the industry. “You’re killing knockoffs with copyright,” she said. “You haven’t been able to do it with trademark law. You haven’t been able to do it with patent designs. We are now going to use copyright law to kill the knockoff industry.” “I don’t know that that’s bad,” she added. “I’m just saying.” The case, Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands, No. 15-866, concerned stripes, zigzags and chevrons copyrighted by Varsity Brands, the leading seller of cheerleading uniforms. The company sued Star Athletica, a rival company, after it started to market uniforms with similar designs.

All concerned agree that two-dimensional designs may be copyrighted but that the cut and shape of three-dimensional garments may not. The question for the court was the legal significance of fusing Varsity’s designs with cheerleading outfits. Some justices asked whether great art remained protected when made into fabric, mentioning Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso. John J. Bursch, a lawyer for Star Athletica, said those designs were indeed protected because they added nothing to the utilitarian function of the garment. Mr. Bursch gave a more mundane example. “Let’s say that I’ve got a T-shirt with a happy face on it, and maybe that makes me look better because I appear happier,” he said. “Well, that design has the same effect whether I’m wearing it on my shirt, my pants, my hat, or carrying it on my notebook.” Varsity’s designs, Mr. Bursch said, play a different and more practical role. Some, for instance, he said, “cause the cheerleader to be perceived as slimmer and more curvy than they actually are.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the two elements could be separated, leaving the designs subject to copyright protection. “What was submitted was a two-dimensional artwork,” she said of Varsity’s copyright registration. “It may not be like Mondrian, but it is chevrons and other things. They are not submitting the cheerleader’s uniform itself. They are not saying anything about the shape of the uniform, the cut of the uniform.” “The pictorial, graphic element is not part of the design of the cheerleader’s uniform; it’s superimposed on it,” she said. “It’s reproduced on it. It’s applied to it.” But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the combination created something new. “The whole point of the case is we’re not just talking about two-dimensional artwork,” he said. “We’re talking about two-dimensional artwork applied to the fabric in a way that conveys a utilitarian function.” “It’s not simply to cover the body,” he said. “It’s to convey a particular message. It shows that you’re a member of the cheerleading squad.”

The hardest question, several justices said, concerned camouflage, which is a distinct design that serves a practical purpose. “The utilitarian function that camouflage has is to hide you in the woods,” Justice Elena Kagan said. But William M. Jay, a lawyer for Varsity, said that camouflage may warrant copyright protection. “I do think that an original camouflage pattern could be copyrighted and then reproduced on backpacks, iPhone covers or a hunter’s garment,” he said. Chief Justice Roberts asked about military uniforms. Mr. Jay indicated that protection might be possible there, too. Turning aphoristic, Justice Breyer mused about how people dress to express themselves. “The clothes on the hanger do nothing,” he said. “The clothes on the woman do everything. And that is, I think, what fashion is about.” The observation was greeted with approval from the far side of the bench. “That’s so romantic,” Justice Kagan said.