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


The Boss Will See You Now

I once insisted to my colleagues that it really is nothing to write a blog post: you can do it while waiting in the checkout line at Whole Foods.* Although that has proven overly ambitious, I was indeed standing in that very line the other day when a customer laboriously explained to a cashier about how another market had developed biodegradable non-paper bags, how her cooperative apartment building simply disposed of the Whole Foods bags without recycling, and in general how unrealistic it was for Whole Foods to expect anything good to come out of its use of paper shopping bags. The cashier, a very young woman, clearly had not been expecting, on punching in that morning, to debate sustainability with a stranger; she took the woman’s payment and gently encouraged her to move on.

Why did the loquacious customer decide that a cashier was the right person to address shopping bag policy at a company with 91,000 employees? I reflect on that because I am sometimes approached by people in the fashion business in the hope that I will introduce them to others who can help them in their careers. Young designers want me to introduce them to retailers. Entrepreneurs at start-ups want help in meeting financiers, and financiers want me to introduce them to the owners of thriving businesses and distressed businesses. Sometimes, I can accommodate them, but because lawyers tend to rub elbows with other lawyers and with executives who need (I did not say want) to speak with lawyers, doing so is not commonplace for use. My contacts are therefore what you would expect from a fashion lawyer: people who have devoted at least part of their work lives to dealing with contracts, governmental filings and lawsuits.

There are many different areas of expertise and specialties in the fashion and luxury goods businesses. And there are also many layers of responsibility. We all know that, but when you want something enough, it is easy to forget—and to hope that whoever you can easily get hold of is the right person to meet. Before approaching an organization, it is always a good idea to learn as much about it as possible, first to know about what it wishes to reveal about itself, second to know what it expects next to achieve, and third, and perhaps most important, to know who is the gatekeeper for the topic you are hoping to bring to the fore. Your lawyer can sometimes indeed be a resource. We have access to databases and we do know useful people. So we may have the right contacts for you—or we may not; it all depends on what you want and on those old but eternally important variables: good timing and good luck.

We have come a long way in gaining quick access to information from the days when, at the insurance company where I once worked, the people in charge of investments made sure to own one share of every corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange, just to be able to receive the annual report. But that information and so much more is now readily available online—which of course means you do not need anyone else to look for you, as long as you know where to look. It is when the devil arrives with his proverbial details that lawyers can sometimes help—as can accountants, consultants and all the other professionals who absorb the time and money of business people everywhere. It is just part of the game, but it is a game we should all know how to play.

* Because I know I will be asked, as was the case with this post, the best time to catch up with your blogging is while waiting for your eight-year-old to soak himself and everyone nearby in a water-gun fight at a very wet playground.

Credit: Alan Behr


In the Fitting Room with the Thieves

Shopping with Big Sunglasses Woman Keeping a Secret

Whether you call it shoplifting or shrinkage and the people tasked with stopping it the house detectives or the asset protection department, and regardless of what new technology you put into place, if you are a retailer, stealing is a problem that will never go away. When I was in high school, back in New Orleans, I worked weekends and summers at the department store my family owned and operated (and long since shuttered). I got to see firsthand the extent of the problem—which was harder to track in those days before electronic inventory controls. The manager of my department was arrested for stealing a pair of Mickey Mouse suspenders from the warehouse. He had been collared by the four-man security team brought in to replace the aging and quite ineffective store detective. During a big three-day sale taking place over a long summer weekend, as the junior and surely least valuable member of our sales team, I was relegated to sitting in the men’s fitting room, watching for thieves. All I got for my trouble was the chance to alert security to the customer who thought that the fitting room stall belonged in the men’s bathroom and had used it accordingly. That incentivized me to petition for repatriation to the sales floor and, just to be sure my position did not revert, I became the top sales person of my department during the next three-day sale.

Jump some years ahead, and now I find myself working with clients in retail on the law of asset protection. There was the time I had to work with the manager and assistant manager of one department store branch that was being sued for assault and false imprisonment by an alleged shoplifter who claimed he had been injured in his apprehension. The plaintiff appeared at the first hearing on crutches, and justice being as slow as it is, by the time the second hearing came around, he was practically pole vaulting with the things, which his lawyer, who could now hardly catch up with him, obviously told him to keep using in an effort to garner sympathy and a favorable settlement.

It was frustrating to our client, but none of that has changed much. You still need to be sure that you work with counsel to know what you can and cannot do in pursuing, approaching and ultimately challenging a suspected shoplifter. There are rules about that, and they vary from state to state. Just as an example, in New York you need to show that the suspect took possession of the item with an intention to make off with it. If you are found purposefully trying to sneak out a T-shirt by wearing it, give your lawyer a call; but if you tuck the T-shirt under your arm while paying for something else and mistakenly head out with it, you are guilty only of absentmindedness.

As long as retailers work very hard to create demand for what they sell, and as long as objects of desire hang and lie in public view, shoplifting will be a problem. As with all other problems that are certain to occur, it is always best to have policies and procedures in place and to make sure that the individuals charged with being the first line of defense—the sales staff—are thoroughly briefed on what to do. It is prudent to have counsel and the security team conduct periodic joint seminars with sales and security personnel. As with everything else in the law, the proverbial ounce of prevention will alleviate the need for the more than typically expensive, when it comes to litigation, pound of cure.

Credit: Alan Behr


Remembering Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham MCNY Winter Ball 02-25-15

The term fashion photographer typically brings to mind a specialist who works on assignment for advertisements or editorials and who brings to each shoot enough equipment to light a stadium and enough digital photographic gear to document a war. Bill Cunningham, who died on Saturday at the age of 87, did it all differently and in so doing became the essential visual chronicler of fashion in the USA.

Bill worked for The New York Times, but there is no external evidence that he took direct orders from editors—or that he deferred to the wishes of designers, subjects or anyone else. His method was to go around Manhattan on a bicycle, wearing a purposefully utilitarian and unfashionable outfit: blue French worker’s jacket, khakis and sneakers. At charity benefits and other social goings on—which is where I usually ran into him—he would switch into something black, not to be fashionable, but to blend in, rather like a stalking ninja—which, photographically, is rather the role liked to fill. His camera was typically an obsolescent (to a photojournalist) 35mm film model, and I never saw him trouble himself to carry more than one lens. He was balletic in his movements, turning, twisting, weaving and sometimes seeming to float among chatting socialites, popping off at what interested him. He was all business: if you called out, “Hi, Bill,” you were lucky to get a nod and a smile in response before he seemingly had slipped under the dress of the grandly frocked blonde next to you and emerged unseen to snap one just like her a few paces beyond.

The protocol was to pretend you did not see him even if you did, even as you silently pleaded with the gods of fashion that you had worn something worthy of Bill’s attention. (As a middle-aged man in a Henry Poole dinner jacket, I never held any such illusions.) The payoff was to have your picture in The New York Times, most often in one of the short videos Bill filed, narrated in his typically avuncular style—his high voice effusive with enthusiasm at trends and fads, some of them not known to almost anyone until he announced their ascendance.

Bill was no photographic stylist. As long as the image made his point about what was being worn, it was good enough for him. And because his eye for fashion was so unfailing, it made no matter. As Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, frequently acknowledged, “We all dressed for Bill.”

If Bill photographed you, by all means, accept the honor and cherish it. Under law, you have no right to compensation for it: if he snapped your image at a benefit or on the street, you had no expectation of privacy, and so he did not need the one thing he never appeared to have concerned himself to get: a model release. Sometimes people claim that, in some published photograph or another, they were made to look bad and so try build a case around that. With Bill Cunningham, sorry: he would only photograph you if he thought you looked fantastically unique or simply fantastic. If you did look bad or (almost as unsettling) commonplace, he just passed you by. Conversely, if you managed to photograph him at work, as I did for my series of photographs of the Upper East Side party scene Naked at the Ball (the picture is above), he did not care—just as long as you did not get in his way when it was his turn.

Bill Cunningham was indeed one of a kind. The fashion world will miss him.

Credit: Alan Behr

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Photo Credit: Photograph Copyright © 2015 by Alan Behr


The Fashion Law Blog Turns TWO Today!

Fashion Industry Law Blog 2nd Anniversary (5-19-16)

Wow, time does fly fast!

THE FASHION INDUSTRY LAW BLOG IS CELEBRATING TWO YEARS!

On May 19, 2014, our Fashion Practice launched The Fashion Industry Law Blog. Two years and 72 posts later, we are widely read and re-posted. We hope you have signed up to receive our posts in your inbox automatically as they are published* or have visited our site from time-to-time.

During the last two years, we have published posts related to copyrights and trademarks, licensing, real estate, labor and employment and notable cases of interest to the fashion and luxury goods communities. We have also published posts classified as “general musings” — light commentary about the goings-on in fashion that may be hip, trendy or controversial.

We will continue to share timely posts targeted to designers, senior executives, entrepreneurs, in-house counsel, fashionistas and fashionistos.

We would be nothing without our readership, so, “Thank you” from all of us who have shared our thinking with you in these past two busy and exciting years for the fashion industry.

Please consider sharing The Fashion Industry Law Blog with those in the industry and others who may enjoy it.

Thank you for reading!
The Fashion Law Team at Phillips Nizer LLP

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*To receive our blog posts in your inbox as they are published, please enter your e-mail address in the box that appears under Get New Posts By Email located in the right sidebar, and press the “Follow” button. You will receive a confirmation of your request in your inbox at that address shortly thereafter.


Too Stylish to Stay at Home—Or Go Back There

German Police Jacket

While attending the annual meeting of the Copyright Society of the USA in Newport, Rhode Island last year, I walked into a military surplus store and came out the owner of a Swiss military field jacket. I had found a row of them crowded into a single rack. All were a bit malodorous (often a hazard when buying often questionably stored surplus clothes), and although none bore a size label, all were unworn. The first one I tried on fit almost as well as something my tailor might have done up for me, and so, sacrificing the eight-dollar purchase price, I took it home. Much of the summer was occupied with airing it out, but with the first chill of autumn, I wore it on the streets of Manhattan.

It hardly drew a notice from my dinner companion that evening, which was a bit discouraging because she was Swiss. But the payoff came next time out, during a horrid day of wind, chill and rain. The jacket, intended to keep hearty Swiss conscripts dry and toasty in the worst Alpine weather, answered its calling brilliantly. Weaving among New Yorkers who stomped along in the wet ground as if persecuted, I kept up a merry pace, as warm as if I were wearing a space heater. I thought that the nipped-waist, gray-green, single-breasted, many-pocketed jacket, which would have enabled me to blend in seamlessly in an Alpine pine forest, was also quite stylish. It was undeniably practical: there was even space for a Swiss Army knife. But when my prize at last emerged from the foul weather again to rest under the sweet lights of home, my wife had this to say: “Where did you get that ugly jacket?”

That intramural sartorial challenge next led me to a website where I found a green German policeman’s jacket. This wardrobe caprice set me back a relatively dear eleven dollars plus shipping. Also unworn, it bore the fading hang tag of its manufacturer under the name it was called during the days it was a state-run enterprise in East Germany. The jacket appeared to date, however, from a time near the end of the last century when the cops in the German state of its origin (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to you geography buffs) switched to much cooler SWAT-team coats of blue. Indeed, these green jackets do tend to make even the most warlike German Polizist look like a bureaucrat—which might well have been the intention in a nation grown uncomfortable with symbols of armed authority.

This time, the outerwear debut took place in the parents’ lounge of the Deutsche Sprachschule (German Language School) attended by my first grader on Saturday mornings. Everyone recognized it, and I got quite a few compliments, but a room full of German expats is not exactly a statistically supportable random sample for this stylistic boundary-pusher. As my son and I were heading up Lexington Avenue on our way home, we saw Eliot Rabin, who owns and designs menswear for the sophisticated Peter Elliot stores. He was busy on his mobile phone, but the moment he saw us, he excused himself to his caller, put down the phone and ran over to say, “That’s a great jacket.”

I was suddenly feeling the kind of confidence in my taste that is unmatched by any male who has not done a turn as the GQ Style Guy. As my wife opened the door for us and caught first sight of my new success, she said, “Where did you get that ugly jacket?”

So much for the old spousal imprimatur. I’ll take that under advisement–even as I troll the web for something chic in a size 38 that is a leftover from the Soviet navy.

Credit: Alan Behr