December 13, 2011 4:00pm PT by Eriq Gardner
Power Rangers Costume Dispute Morphs Into Settlement (Exclusive)
The company that owns the rights to the Power Rangers television series, brand and related products has prevailed over a website that sold colorful skin-tight battle suits and cheap helmets. SCG Power Rangers LLC has settled a lawsuit with Underdog Endeavors, operators of MyPartyShirt.com, and as a result, the site has agreed disgorge profits from the sale of Power Rangers costumes.
SCG filed the lawsuit a few weeks before Halloween, claiming the sale of shirts in various Power Rangers colors infringed its copyrights and trademarks.
The move came as the fashion industry has expressed interest in expanding copyright protection to clothing design. Copyright law doesn't permit "useful articles" like clothing to enjoy protection, but it does allow the protection of "any pictorial, graphic, or sculptural authorship that can be identified separately from the utilitarian aspects of an object."
In its lawsuit, SCG claimed copyright authority in the "artwork and design" of the Power Rangers uniforms. In addition, the company claimed violations of the Lanham Act by alleging the defendant had created confusion in the marketplace that the costumes were officially endorsed merchandise.
Legal observers are unsure about the viability of protecting Halloween costumes.
In 2002, one manufacturer of children's animal costumes sued a competitor for infringement. The lawsuit was dismissed by a skeptical district court judge, and then revived three years later by the 2nd Circuit, which remanded the case for further proceedings to determine whether specific elements like sculpted animal “heads” were conceptually separable from the utilitarian aspects of the clothing.
In another case, Lucasfilm sued the British designer who sculpted the original Stormtrooper helmets in the first Star Wars film and who was selling replica versions. George Lucas got a $20 million default judgement because the defendant didn't show up, but Lucas had to go to British courts to enforce the decision. There, the British legal system deemed the helmets to have a "utilitarian," rather than an artistic purpose.
The mystery over whether costumes enjoy strong or soft IP protection will have to be cloaked until the next lawsuit comes along.
Rachel Valadez, the attorney for the plaintiffs, says her client has very favorable agreement with the defendant and the suit was dismissed this morning. As a result of the settlement, Mypartyshirt has agreed to disgorge all profits to SCG earned in connection with the alleged infringing items and has reimbursed SCG's attorneys fees in full.