Cosplay Comes to SCOTUS on Halloween

Inside Anime Japan 2016

This Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Halloween for the first time in four years. It may be no accident that one of the cases they’re hearing that day is Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands, No. 15-866, a copyright fight over design elements in cheerleading uniforms.

The case has attracted attention from some amici you might expect—intellectual property professors and owners, in particular—and some you might not, including makers of 3D printers and the American Library Association.

But there are at least two groups that may surprise you, and for which the argument date may be particularly meaningful.

The International Costumers’ Guild brings “hobbyist and professional costumers from around the world together.” It advocates on behalf of costumers and the costuming community, and joined the brief filed by Public Knowledge supporting Star Athletica.

And The Royal Manticoran Navy filed its own brief, also in support of Star Athletica. If you’ve never heard of Manticore before, don’t worry—it’s a fictional interstellar kingdom in the universe created by author David Weber. TRMN is the official fan organization of that universe—called the “Honorverse,” after its primary heroine, Honor Harrington.

Members of both are active in what is commonly referred to as “cosplay”—performance art where people dress up as specific characters, both existing and invented. ICG members create costumes from various genres, including sci-fi/fantasy, comics, anime and history, according to ICG President Philip Gust. TRMN members dress as characters and individuals within the Honorverse, wearing uniforms and insignias they’ve created from descriptions in the novels.

Though the costumes and uniforms both groups create are unique, many borrow from copyrighted materials and draw on common design elements such as chevrons and rank insignias.

Here, the court is considering whether such design elements are copyrightable, separate from the garment of which they are a part.

Gust fears that if the court comes down in favor of Varsity Brands that it will “stifle creativity by making it more difficult for costumers to create costumes that incorporate elements common to a given genre or historical period, or to combine them in new ways.”

ICG joined the Public Knowledge brief because “none of the Justices have a specialized background in intellectual property law,” and he hopes to inform them of the “important issues of creativity versus protection under copyright law.”

Matthew Parker, Counsel (or, in-Honorverse, Judge Advocate General) to TRMN, told Bloomberg BNA that he thought the justices wouldn’t know this kind of hobby exists, or have the world-view to appreciate the unintended consequences that a ruling against Star Athletica would have.

“I don’t think Ruth Bader Ginsburg gets dressed up as a storm trooper on the weekend,” he said, referring to the ubiquitous white-armored grunts with abysmal aim in the Star Wars universe.

To be sure, for both the ICG and TRMN, costuming is more than just a once-a-year affair. Still, it seems appropriate that the high court is hearing a case with such importance to the costuming community on the day that the rest of us join in the fun.