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.


Can I Use The Photographs? (Part 3)

Cannes - 'Dreamgirls' Premiere

These days anyone with a cell phone is a photographer and the internet is flooded with photos of celebrities that go “viral” on social media. A photograph of a star wearing your garment, carrying your accessory or holding your shopping bag can be of tremendous value to your brand. Indeed, brands shower celebrities with gift items for the promotional value in their use. And contracts to promote brands are lucrative for the celebrities and those who serve as matchmakers. So it is very tempting to copy photos found on the internet to your website, Facebook page or ad. But if you do, you may run afoul of what has been variously described as the right of privacy or the right of publicity.

There is no uniform national law which protects an individual from unwanted exploitation of their name or image. Each state, however, has afforded protection, either by statute or as a matter of judge made “common law”, and sometimes by both. New York has long prohibited the use of the name or likeness of every living person—celebrity or not—for purposes of “advertising or trade”. While the New York statute offers no protection against the use of the image of a deceased person, even if a celebrity, other states do protect celebrities against commercialization for extended periods after death.

Use of a name or likeness for non-commercial purposes, however, is not prohibited. Because of the constitutional guarantee of free speech, newspapers, magazines and even TMZ are free to report the comings and goings of stars, and also to publish that embarrassing photo of you at a Giants game, with impunity. Your daughter can tweet her cell LadyGaga-InSunglassesphone photo of Britney Spears walking on the street without make-up or post-it to Facebook, and like-minded celebrity-obsessed fans then can circulate it freely. These uses are not considered uses for purposes of advertising or trade and so are protected free speech.

But what of a business seeking to use a celebrity image on its website, Facebook page or other social media channels? Is this protected free speech, or is it instead a violation of the right of privacy or publicity? On the one hand, the use of the image in a paid advertisement is clearly a violation of the right of privacy and publicity, including under the New York statute. And use of the image on merchandise, even if given away for promotional purposes, is also a clear violation which can lead to punitive damages and not merely compensatory damages.

Closer questions are presented by posting a photo on your own website. A website is a business promotional tool and can be seen as an advertising use. But websites can also report news and events relating to the business, and truthfully communicating newsworthy events is behavior protected by the First Amendment. Where celebrities are seen and what they are wearing is considered legitimate subjects of public interest meriting First Amendment protection. Does this mean that if your daughter can tweet her photo of Britney Spears, you can retweet it and point out she’s wearing the hat and scarf you sell? On this question the judicial authorities have not yet spoken. Last year Katherine Heigl sued Duane Reade under the New York statute, for tweeting a photograph of her carrying a Duane Reade shopping bag. The litigation was resolved privately without a court addressing the legal issue. While it is sorely tempting to opine that this sort of communication of truthful facts should not be actionable, the burden and expense of defending against such a claim and the damages to which you could be exposed counsel caution.

Credit: Helene M. Freeman

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For a recent article by New York Times reporters Sydney Ember and Rachel Abrams on brands and their use, sometimes without permission, of consumers’ own photographs posted on social media showcasing branded items, click here.