The fashion industry has debated the effect of the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc., interpreting the Copyright Act’s rules for registration of two and three dimensional designs incorporated into useful objects, on the availability of copyright protection for fashion designs and accessories. There now appears to be an emerging consensus of finding copyright protection in circumstances where it might not have been previously expected. This is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that the Court’s decision may be impacting a key question that the Court side-stepped.
While Star Athletica resolved that an otherwise copyrightable design that is a part of a useful object could be the subject of copyright so long as it could be conceived independently of the object in which it was incorporated, the Court pointedly refused to decide whether the cheerleading uniform surface patterns were copyrightable under the rules applicable to all two and three dimensional designs. Chief among those rules is the requirement of “originality”.
The breadth of the potential impact of Star Athletica is reflected in the recent decision of the Copyright Office to issue copyright registrations to adidas for the Kanye West Yeezy Boost 350 and Yeezy Boost 350 Version 2 sneakers. The application for registration as a two dimensional design and a three dimensional sculpture had originally been refused on the ground that it was a useful article. A request for reconsideration of the refusal was filed and registration was again refused on the ground that the “simple shapes arranged into common and expected pattern in very simple color schemes” did not meet the originality requirement.
But on a second request for reconsideration, the Copyright Office reversed itself, concluding that under the test of Star Athletica the two and three dimensional aspects of the designs could be “perceived” as separate from the sneaker, the useful object on which the designs appear.
It also decided that given the very low standard for copyrightability, the designs’ lines, stripes and swirls, although individually not copyrightable, had been combined in a sufficiently distinctive manner so that the designs, when viewed as a whole, merited registration. The copyrightable combinations, as described by the Copyright Office, consisted of “irregular black lines of various lengths and shapes on a grey fabric with a black semi-circle in the arch and an orange dotted stripe on an off-white heel loop” in the case of version 1 and “several grey lines in a wave pattern with a thick orange stripe on the outsole that fades toward the heel” with an inner orange layer that adds “intermittent orange coloring” in the case of version 2.
In light of the Copyright Office’s decision to register the Yeezy 350 sneaker patterns, at least in their contrasting color ways, fashion brands should now consider seeking copyright registration for their important designs containing any variation beyond the most basic, unvaried stripes.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman
Read other blog posts related to Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. here.
Earlier in this series of posts (here and here), I reported on my interview with Arthur Wayne, the vice president, global public relations of Brooks Brothers. We discussed how the brand maintains continuity throughout hundreds of points of sale (wholesale and retail). In business and legal terms, here is the short and simple version:
- Stylistic consistency creates trademark consistency. Brooks Brothers maintains uniformity of cut, pattern, SKUs and style names worldwide. I own suits and jackets in the 1818 line, which is the company’s standard, positioned between its premium Gold Fleece line and Red Fleece bridge line. My pieces are of Italian fabric, sewn, variously, in Italy, Thailand and the company-owned workrooms in Haverhill, Massachusetts. All bear the trademark 1818, all are in the slimmest of the company’s fits, which is branded Milano. As a customer, I know that, wherever I find Brooks Brothers in the world, I can put on an 1818 Milano jacket made in any of three continents and know it will fit just as do the ones in my suitcase. In legal terms: The more consistent the message, generally speaking, and the more clearly a trademark represents just one source of origin, the stronger will be that trademark.
- Control the message, but respect regional differences. Japanese customers much prefer the company’s products made in its US factories—which they view as a mark of authenticity. French customers, in contrast, want to experience the brand, but they care relatively little where items they buy are sourced. (Interestingly, offered Mr. Wayne in an aside, when foreign buyers visit, it is the Japanese men who typically have the best interpretation of “American traditional style.”) United States trademark law does not permit the registration of geographically descriptive marks, so from a legal point of view, where it is made is of no matter: if customers get that the brand is about the American experience (reinterpreted and, to my taste, noticeably improved, by Italian ownership), that is what matters most.
- As in the movies, story is everything to a brand. Marketers and lawyers do not always see eye-to-eye. Every business day, in multiple places around the world, marketing teams are presenting to their lawyers exciting new trademarks, only to hear the lawyers say that they are unavailable for use. On the importance of story for a fashion or luxury brand, however, there should be no disagreement. Just as the mere mention of Veuve Cliquot brings to mind the story of the taste and luxury of Champagne and the mention of Leica brings to mind the story of precise German optics, so does a reference to Brooks Brothers open a page on a story about the American experience—in style of dress and in style of living. When Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” he omitted any reference to wise consistency. That is the path taken by Brooks Brothers and by other international brands that know that, from consistency comes the strength to endure and prosper in multiple territories, among multiple customer bases.
- Newness is the best tradition. “People think of us as a traditional brand,” said Mr. Wayne, “but our founder, Henry Sands Brooks, was a fashion guy—a dandy. Look at what followed: collars with buttons; readymade suits; pink shirts on men. All of these things were innovative in their time—probably even shocking to many.” Tradition, in other words, is what happens when innovation meets inheritable acceptance. And that is the best way a marketer, together with his or her lawyer, can build, expand and ultimately preserve a fashion brand.
Credit: Alan Behr
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In my last post, I offered some of the history of the Brooks Brothers brand provided to me by Arthur Wayne, Vice President, Global Public Relations, during a recent visit with him at the company’s headquarters in New York. Having been to Brooks Brothers stores from Milan to London and beyond, I asked if the styles, brand names and trademarks appurtenant to them were used consistently throughout the world.
“When Claudio Del Vecchio bought the company, in 2001,” explained Mr. Wayne about its Italian owner, “he already ‘got’ the brand. The first thing he did was undertake a comprehensive product review. Under its prior owners, the company wasn’t really looking in its own garden—for quality of construction, tailoring—the core elements of the brand.” Mr. Wayne noted that, in the mid-to late 90s, there was much talk that casual Friday would be the death of tailored clothing, and the result at Brooks Brothers was that too many items were inexpensively made—something that is possible to accomplish credibly with fast fashion but is not possible to do stylishly with most tailored clothing.
“Claudio approached the brand as a customer,” continued Mr. Wayne. “His thinking has always been, ‘If I feel this way about what I am seeing, others must, too.’ He brought back quality tailoring and made sure the stores have a consistent Brooks Brothers look. The review was a long process and not everything was changed, but the initiative made us ready for the next challenge: brands are now in their customers’ hands.”
That was elegantly put and it shows the current problem faced by all brands and their lawyers: a brand in its legal form is its portfolio of trademarks, along with other intellectual property rights. And a trademark is above all an identifier of source of origin. If you see the trademark COCA-COLA on a soda bottle, that means it comes from Coke, not Pepsi—and so on. If someone else uses your mark, you take legal action to prevent that or risk potentially losing control of the mark and its registrations.
But how do you accomplish that in the age of social media, when consumers get to rate a brand’s offerings down to individual products—and when the brand feels obligated to post negative consumer reviews of those products on the very website where it is trying to sell them—and when it must deal as well with influencers, who can influence whosoever they please, on their own terms? Those forces can alter the perception of where a brand stands, rather as the gravity of the sun bends the approaching light of a distant star, changing the perception of the position of that star. Brooks Brothers partners with influencers, and it features two of them—one American and the other Polish—in its anniversary edition of its house lifestyle magazine. It is all about what Mr. Wayne calls, “the importance of creating a dialogue with your customers. This is what matters to them.”
What is a fashion lawyer to do with all these new forces and new demands? In the third and final post in this series, we will consider some contemporary lessons for international branding.
Credit: Alan Behr
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
In the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona, several of us, including my colleague Alan Behr, gathered for a private fashion industry meeting at the exquisite Hotel El Palace. While sipping tea and sampling fine pastries, we heard brief presentations on important legal developments from around the world.
Owen Tse, a partner at Vivien Chan & Co. in Hong Kong, presented on the New Balance case before the Intermediate Court in the People’s Republic of China. The court ruled in favor of the Chinese company New Barlun, which New Balance had accused of selling infringing footwear. The court relied on the fact that New Barlun had filed the Chinese mark before New Balance had made an attempt. To add insult to injury, the court awarded the equivalent of US $15.8 million to New Barlun, which was subsequently reduced to the equivalent of approximately US $700,000 by the Appeals Court. Owen also reported an interesting fact—“Ivanka Trump” in Chinese was the subject of more than 300 trademark applications in the PRC since 2016.
In addition, the practice of using “shadow companies” to infringe the Chinese translation of well-known brand owner’s trademarks is on the rise in Hong Kong. Infringers promote themselves by claiming they have authorization or license from the shadow companies. Example: Pearl Bay vs. Peony Bay in English and Chinese.
From Amsterdam, Herwin Roerdink of Vondst Advocaten gave a presentation regarding fashion brand owners and European Union data protection regulations. Herwin discussed the issue of smart products, such as socks that collect running data of their wearers and golf shirts that track swings, all in connection with EU privacy regulations. Specifically, a new EU privacy law, GDPR, EU 2016/679, which will become effective on May 25, 2018, imposes heavier regulation and more obligations on data controllers and data processors, whether or not the data is processed in the EU. GDPR also applies to the processing of data of those in the EU by non-EU entities that offer goods and services that monitor behavior in the EU. Non-EU fashion brand owners who target EU customers with monitoring products will therefore be subject to the regulation.
Herwin also explained the differences between the approach of the Dutch data protection authority and the United States Federal Trade Commission regarding the permissibility of WiFi tracking by retailers. Although the Dutch decision was based on Dutch implementation of the EU Privacy Directive, which focuses on whether the processing is necessary to achieve the desired purpose, the FTC decision was based on balancing the concern for customer harm and the legitimate interests of the retailer.
From London, Roland Mallinson of Taylor Wessing updated us on the implications of Brexit to fashion IP, on the assumption that the United Kingdom will not leave the EU before March 2019. Roland predicted that existing European Union Trade Mark (EUTM) registrations will likely continue to be recognized in the UK. He posited that parallel filing in the EU and UK is not imperative now, especially if you are not yet using your mark in the UK. He expressed confidence that there will be some arrangement by which current EUTM trademarks and those being filed now will result in protection in the UK, from the current priority date; however, because nothing is for certain, Roland recommended that strategically key brands continue to file UK applications in parallel with any new EUTM applications. For existing UK and EUTM registrations, it does not automatically follow that a new UK application should be filed now – even for strategically key brands.
The discussion also focused on the practical issue of transferring 900,000 EUTM registrations to the UK system, a process made more complex by the fact that a fair number of the registrations were not filed in English. Some issues, like parallel imports and European design rights, have political sensitivities.
Finally, I made a presentation regarding the important Star Athletica case, which was decided by the US Supreme Court in March 2017. We have previously reported on that development in our blogs on March 22, 2017 and May 5, 2017.
In short, we had a very enjoyable and productive meeting. And as anyone who attends the INTA annual meeting knows, half the pleasure for us was being able to sit down while we networked with friends and colleagues.
Credit: Monica P. McCabe
Thank you to Phillips Nizer law clerk Candace Arrington of our Corporate & Business Law and Intellectual Property Law Practices for providing assistance with the review and preparation of this blog post.