Fast Fashion – Slow Justice?

When you hear the term fast fashion, what pops into your head? Trendy designs, hot off the runways of Europe, reinterpreted at prices for all? Affordable, mass-produced clothing? How about labor unrest?

It’s long been true that the garment industry, as with others in which production is outsourced to developing nations, has had its troubles with employment practices at source factories. Those practices continue, particularly in factories in Asia and Eastern Europe. Most production appears to be completed fairly. Recently, however, an unwelcome spotlight has fallen on Zara and its parent company, Inditex. Back in July 2016, the Bravo Tekstil factory in Turkey, which had manufactured clothes for Inditex under the Zara brand, as well for as other fast fashion houses such as Mango and Next, abruptly closed. The former Bravo workers went to court to obtain a ruling that they were entitled to three months’ unpaid wages and severance pay from their former employer. With the employer’s principal having disappeared with the funds that the factory had received for the production of the garments, the workers attempted to have Inditex and the other fashion houses take responsibility for the payment of their lost wages. Although apparently not legally liable, Inditex had announced in 2016 that– together with Mango and Next – it would establish a “hardship fund” to compensate the workers. The three companies have since offered to pay about one quarter of the claims, collectively offering the equivalent in Turkish lira of about US $700,000.

That did not satisfy the former workers, who have focused their efforts on Inditex and the Zara brand in their attempt to recover their money. A number of these workers recently went into Zara stores in Istanbul and inserted hidden tags into merchandise. The tags advised potential purchasers that the people who had made Zara clothes such as those had not been paid for their work. Although it is not clear if the pieces so chosen were made in the shuttered factory, the resulting publicity surely did Zara no favors. Indeed, if there is a party in the wrong, it is the former employer, but that party is out of the picture, and the result is contention over what was intended to be an act of corporate generosity.

Why do these situations exist? In large part, it is due to the fast-fashion business model, which requires production of vast quantities of inexpensive clothes very quickly (as the name implies). Rapid and cheap can be, and has been, accomplished successfully many times, but the exceptions can be horrific. The Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,130 garment-factory workers and injured over 2,500 more several years ago, is the most famous case in point.

How can a company as much as half a world away, eager for quick production, trust that its sources pay fairly, honor agreements to workers, provide clean working conditions and—quite literally—assure that the roof will not come down?

Contracts with source factories typically contain clauses prohibiting child labor and forced labor, mandating safe and healthy working conditions—and demanding compliance with often very strictly delineated employment standards and practices. But from far away, that is difficult to enforce, and as anyone who has ever inspected a factory knows, when they are aware that you are coming, things start to look much better—at least as long as you are there.

Earlier this year, a coalition of labor and human rights groups produced a report on transparency in the global garment industry supply chain. The hope is that, by encouraging fashion companies to publish accurate information concerning the factories in which their garments are manufactured, they will undertake to assist further to prevent, address and correct any human rights abuses that may occur there. It remains to be seen as to how successful these new initiatives will be. All that can be certain for now is that the problem will not go away and that counsel for companies seeking sourcing in developing areas should be diligent in working with management to help minimize both business risks and any potential harm to factory workers.

Credit:  Laura E. Longobardi

Laura is counsel to Phillips Nizer’s Litigation Department and Labor & Employment Law and Real Estate Law Practices.


There Ought To Be A Law–Against Bad Manners

There has been much in the news lately about the law and the appropriateness of conduct. Here is a short summary: groping people you come across during the course of a workday is illegal. That was easy. Now try this one: when hosting a business lunch, should you direct the seating or let your guests choose their own seats? If you draw the task of picking the wine for the lunch meeting but may not end up paying for it, what sort of bottle should you choose? These and other questions (that may be of small moment to celebrities who risk arrest for sexual harassment or worse but remain of considerable consequence to those very many of us who want to host a successful business lunch) were answered for me in a private session by Skype with the British etiquette consultant William Hanson.

Young, well-spoken and serious about his subject, Mr. Hanson, who appears regularly on British television, proved uniquely qualified to help guide me through these muddles of my own making. The host, he advised, should take it upon himself or herself to assign seats to the invited guests. That was comforting to hear because it is often the case that, in any group of people seated for business, there are one or two you especially want to speak with—and there may also be one or two you know would not take particularly well to speaking to each other. Mr. Hanson’s license to direct the seating was therefore gratefully accepted.

As for the wine: although many has been the time I have thumbed the wine list to survey first-growth Bordeaux bottles from triumphant years, I know better than to stick my host with a four-figure drinks tab. Mr. Hanson recommended a practice I have actually been following (to my relief): ask what everyone is having for a main course, choose an appropriate style of wine and (if needed, with the help of the sommelier) pick a bottle two or so notches up the price scale from the cheapest.

The question of who pays is an interesting one—especially when everyone is presumably on an expense account and is privately measuring the price of the meal in relation to his or her firm’s rules or expectations. One the nice things about bringing guests to your club is that the question of who pays is thereby settled. In a restaurant, Mr. Hanson advised, the host should consider setting up payment with management before the first guest arrives. Failing that, slipping away discretely before the bill comes is also an easy way to handle a sometimes-delicate situation.

There ought to be a law. That has been said so many times about things that are merely annoying, albeit consistently so. For me, there ought to be a law reprimanding any food and beverage manager who permits servers to pour water intended for tea into a coffee chafer urn—because once the urn has been permeated with coffee, the tea will taste from coffee no matter how long you let it steep. Mr. Hanson addressed my related concern: the speaker has stood up and everyone is drinking that so-so coffee or even worse tea—and returning cups onto saucers with clacks that can make the speaker feel as if he or she is addressing a room full of obedient crickets. The solution: practice doing it in silence or muzzle the fall of the cup with a paper napkin.

And finally from Mr. Hanson, a fashion tip (and one I have been giving): for those of us who wear bespoke suits: button all the sleeves—no leaving a couple open so everyone knows you have a tailor. It is obviously a good suit, and the buttons do their assigned good work when closed.

As Mr. Hanson reminded me, good etiquette is simply about putting others before ourselves. If everyone does it, everyone, in business or socially, will feel blessed.

Credit:  Alan Behr


What’s In A Letter?

Recently, the New Balance footwear company won a landmark $1.5 million trademark decision in the Suzhou Intermediate People’s Court, near Shanghai, China. Daniel McKinnon, the New Balance senior counsel for intellectual property, told the New York Times: “If the China marketplace can be thought of as a schoolyard, New Balance wants to make it abundantly clear we are the wrong kid to pick on.”

The schoolyard brawl all started when New Balance alleged that three Chinese brands infringed upon its well-known New Balance “N” trademark. The three Chinese shoemakers, New Boom, New Barlun, and New Bunren, saw fit not only to use similar brand names, but also to trade off of New Balance’s international acclaim by mimicking its slanted “N” design on their shoes. A Suzhou Court cited the defendants’ free-riding, consumer confusion, and market harm as the basis for its ruling in favor of New Balance.

What makes this case important is not only that New Balance was prepared to fight for its rights in China—often a challenging thing to do—but also that it was willing to do so over a single-letter trademark.

A trademark is a source indicator that can convey a range of messages about your brand such as quality, price, taste and reputation—the sometimes obvious and sometimes mysterious factors that, in total, are the goodwill of the brand.
Brand owners often reflect upon the value and protectability of words, names, logotypes, slogans and even colors as trademarks. The victory by New Balance in a famously tough territory tells us that a lot can ride on who is found to own and have the rights to exploit a single letter.

Minimalism is as much a factor in trademark recognition as anywhere else in the broad field of visual expression. Mercedes Benz has made a simple three-pointed star one of the most recognizable marks on earth. In the USA, Louboutin owns the color red for the soles of shoes, and Federal Express owns the truncated version of its mark popularized by the public: FedEx. Take it down even further, and you get marks with one or two letters: PayPal is recognized by two cerulean stylized “P’s” and Facebook by a solitary but consequential byzantine blue lower-case “f”. Uber upgraded its former “U” mark to a modernized “U” enclosed by emerald green.

In fashion, designers have been using single-letter marks for decades. Hermès uses its elegant “H”; and of course, New Balance is using its slanted “N”. A few logos have doubled letters: Gucci has made the twin “G” into a brand; as with the seemingly reflective Tory Burch “T”, the mirrored Fendi “F”, and the interlocking “Cs” of Chanel.

Single-letter marks can be significant in fashion because a single letter can serve not only as a logo, but also as a design that can be emblazoned on clothing, handbags, shoes, etc. Meanwhile, the boom in online retail—where a mark may be only barely visible—has been the basis for the further simplification of marks. The large British online retailer Asos recently abbreviated its trademark to the letter “a,” the better to identify the brand on its mobile app.

 

Credit: Candace R. Arrington

Candace Arrington provides research support as a law clerk to our corporate and business law, intellectual property law and entertainment law practices.


Star Athletica: An Unsatisfying End

If you were hoping that following the Supreme Court’s decision in Star Athletica you might learn whether common stripes, chevrons, color blocks and zig zags are sufficiently original to be copyrightable—a question expressly reserved by the Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit– you will be disappointed. On August 10, 2017, the district court permitted Varsity Brands to voluntarily dismiss its copyright infringement action against Star Athletica with prejudice, over the objection of Star Athletica, which wished to pursue its counter-claims seeking to invalidate the Varsity Brands copyrights.

You might well ask, as we did, why after seven years of largely successful litigation, Varsity Brands would be permitted to walk away. Or you might ask, as we also did, why Star Athletica would object to having the suit end with no apparent injunctive or other relief awarded against it. Both are fair questions and the answer to each is unusual: The insurance company that was defending Star Athletica reached a settlement agreement with Varsity Brands, without the participation or approval of Star Athletica. The terms of the settlement are confidential. The only clue is the court’s reservation to Varsity Brands of the right to return to court if it does not receive the payment from the insurer required by the settlement. As far as Varsity Brands is concerned, not only does it get money, but it also avoids the potential for invalidation of its copyrights, having made its point that the two dimensional designs reflected in its uniforms are separable from their utilitarian features and theoretically capable of copyright protection. It now has a stronger threat to hurl at potential competitors.

But what of Star Athletica and its interest in settling its rights to compete with Varsity Brands in the cheerleading uniform market? In the view of the court, Star Athletica receives what is in effect immunity from future claims of copyright infringement related to the copyrights and uniforms at issue in the action. And also in the court’s view, Star Athletica’s counter-claims to invalidate the copyrights were only defenses to the copyright infringement claims and not independent bases for legal action once the threat of copyright liability was removed. And that is the rub: Varsity Brands has many other copyright registrations for which similar challenges to their validity might (or might not) have merit. Because the court did not provide guidance on that fundamental point, competing uniform makers remain exposed to similar infringement claims.

One can’t help feeling that the broader fashion public had an interest in the resolution of the question of whether stripes and chevrons are original when applied to garments. But it is an axiom of federal court litigation that the courts do not decide hypothetical cases or controversies for the edification of the public.

For now, if you are interested in whether stripes can be protected in fashion, you will have to focus on trademarks and not copyrights. There is always Gucci’s suit against Forever 21 for knocking off what it claims is its stripes trademark. And then, too, there is Adidas’ pending suit against Skechers for knocking off its three stripe trademark. The district court in Oregon just decided that Adidas’ trademark infringement suit can proceed.

Credit:  Helene M. Freeman


Gemstones: The Complexity of Colors

I would like to highlight an interesting trend that has developed over the last ten years in the field of gemstone jewelry design and sales. An increasing number of women are joining the jewelry industry in sales and executive positions, as professional buyers for large firms, designers, bench jewelers, store owners and cutters.

In what has been a traditionally male-dominated industry (I know that may sound strange), this encouraging phenomenon has made me see things differently in terms of how I buy, sell and even cut precious stones.

Over ninety percent of gemstones in the marketplace have undergone color treatments to intensify the primary color. For example, such a treatment will make a pink sapphire more pink and less purple, and an aquamarine more blue, less gray-green.

Uniquely, I buy and cut only natural color gemstones. That is, the gems have not undergone any heat or irradiation treatments to alter or improve their color.

I have noticed a decided increase in female buyers as my clients. It occurs to me that men seem to be more focused on primary colors given off by a gemstone while more women are intrigued by undertones (or secondary colors).

The bluish purple undertone of a typical untreated pink sapphire is a feature that women often find extremely interesting. Men, however, quite often just want to see pink and only pink.

Simply put, more men tend not to appreciate or simply do not value the complexity of natural untreated gemstones the way women do. Subtle, yet mysterious, undertones are a captivating hallmark of untreated gemstones. Learning that aesthetic point of view from my increasingly female clientele and “retraining” my eyes over the past ten years has enabled me to better understand what women are seeing in gemstones and has been immensely helpful to me. It seems one can never stop learning, even when it comes to stones literally as old as the hills.

Credit:  Glenn Preus

Phillips Nizer would like to thank Glenn Preus for this blog post. Glenn is a gemstone cutter in Honolulu, Hawai’i. He can be reached via Instagram: @glennpreus


Bikinis and Copyright

The beaches of summer remind us that it is no disrespect for any of us to confess that most people do not look their best in swimwear and that those who do probably would look great in just about anything. Simply, the more the body is revealed, the more the aesthetic duties that are commonly undertaken by fashion are left to uncovered skin. Call it a triumph of artifice over nature, but for most of us, more clothing, rather than less clothing, even on the beach, is often a good thing. Fashion may make the great-looking come across even greater, but it is often a turning point, in the direction of great, for the rest of us in how we present ourselves to the world.

My colleagues and I have been writing and speaking quite a bit this year about the Star Athletica case—the Supreme Court decision that turned cheerleader uniforms into the biggest issue in fashion law in years. (Law is made by the cases actually brought, and this one just happened to be about uniforms worn by cheerleaders, but by its potential impact, you might well imagine the clothes were couture evening wear.) If nothing else, the case reaffirmed (that is, it did not change) the fact that, in the USA, anything functional in fashion cannot be protected by copyright registration (or with a design patent). When applied to swimwear, which typically represents about the minimum that the law allows any of us to wear in public, whatever precious square inches of cloth are involved almost always serve some kind of function. Finding something protectable in what is there can involve examining decorative clasps, closures and add-ons—but minimalism is the essence of swimsuit design, and such design elaborations are quite rare. That leaves for examination whatever small amount of fabric is actually in use.

As we have noted in these pages before, fabric patterns are protectable, and here, Star Athletica may be helpful in providing guidance. The Supreme Court has now told us that we need only look at a fabric pattern laid flat (in reality or imagination) to view it as we would any two-dimensional artwork to determine if it is original enough to be protectable by copyright. The shape into which it is cut—as swim trunks or a bikini, for example—is irrelevant. That is good news for fabric designers. It confirms that it does not matter how little of the design is there to see: if it is original and visible, it is theoretically protectable.

During the 4th of July weekend, I heard a young man compliment another, his tennis partner, on baggy swim trunks and a matching baseball hat—both made of blue cloth filled with an exaggerated white pattern that looked like multiple slash marks. At a pool the day before, a woman was similarly complimented for a black bikini that had small but intricate white designs only on the cloth that just about covered her right hip and left breast. If any of that is original, it may well be protectable.

Does that mean it is getting harder for a fashion company to know if a fabric being offered to it for use in garments is potentially infringing on the rights of others? Does it mean you have to worry about some design that would not fill the space that could be occupied by a chocolate-chip cookie? Unfortunately, that is likely the case. Where that next takes us is for the courts to decide—but not for now. Summer is here and many of those people you will see on the beach are copyright lawyers and judges, putting much of this behind them until fall.

Credit: Alan Behr


Kardashian Kase – Kontracts Kontrol

Recently, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld an injunction issued for the benefit of members of the Kardashian family against their cosmetic products licensee.

The Kardashians had terminated the license agreement due to the licensee’s alleged failure to pay royalties, among other alleged breaches. The licensee continued to exploit the license and sell products bearing the Kardashian trademarks, asserting, among other things, that “the Kardashians’ termination of the license agreement was invalid because the Kardashians breached the license agreement first . . . .”

The district court found for the Kardashians, holding, unremarkably, that a licensee has but two options when faced with a breach of the license agreement by the licensor: “First, the licensee can consider the contract terminated and stop performance. Second, the licensee can instead continue making royalty payments under the license agreement, continue using the trademarks, and then sue for damages. Regardless, the licensee cannot both stop paying royalties but nevertheless continue using the trademark.”

Although the options presented to a licensee by the district court decision are seemingly reasonable, they can present real risk to the licensee. For example, if the licensee had made significant investments and engaged a large staff to support the licensed business, terminating the agreement and closing down the licensed business not only will put any number of people out of work without advance notice, but also may result in defaults under the licensee’s banking arrangements and the loss of its entire business, thus giving rise to consequential damages potentially far in excess of any award for actual damages to which the licensee may be found to be entitled. Under the district court decision, the licensee’s option in these circumstances would be to continue the licensed business and bring an action against the licensor for damages, with the attendant relationship issues potentially adversely affecting performance, while continuing to make royalty payments with no guaranty that the licensee’s damages can be recouped, even after years of expensive litigation.

There is another quite unremarkable statement in the decision, which, although not in any way undercutting the ruling, may give some guidance as to how a licensee may attempt to protect itself in circumstances like those that the Kardashian licensee alleged it was facing. The court wrote, “like all contracts, trademark license agreements are governed by general principals of contract law.”

Among the most wonderful aspects of our contract laws is that the parties can, in effect and with few limitations, create their own law as to their rights and obligations under almost any circumstances. Accordingly, a licensee familiar with the Kardashian case might look to create a contractual structure whereby it would not have to pay royalties in the event of a significant breach by the licensor or, more realistically, a contractual structure by which it would not have to chase the licensor, at great expense, to recoup royalty payments in order to continue to exploit a generally valuable license agreement.

It is not uncommon to see license agreements in which the licensor has included a right for the licensor to set off amounts due and owing to it by a licensee against any outstanding payment obligations it may have to the licensee. However, even if a licensor would be willing to make this provision bilateral, these provisions are objectively problematic because they cannot be reliably drafted to prevent with certainty a party from merely alleging that the other owes it money in order to trigger the clause (unless, of course, a claimant party is required first to obtain a final judgment as to the amount allegedly owed, which brings us back to the problems with option number two). A better and more objective protection would be to allow the licensee to put its payments of royalties into escrow, with an obligation to take some formal legal action in accordance with the license agreement’s arbitration or litigation provisions before, or reasonably soon after, it notifies the licensor that the escrow account has been established. Assuming that the licensee establishes in the proceeding that it is entitled to damages, the escrow fund, even if less than the damage award, will be available to be applied toward the satisfaction of the judgment. It also is possible that establishing an escrow account and making payments into the escrow account will help relieve at least some of the tensions arising from awkward efforts to work together while the parties are adversaries in court or in an arbitration and perhaps even salvage the relationship after the legal action has ended.

Credit: Jonathan R. Tillem