Much has been said and written about Christian Louboutin’s iconic red sole brand. It has sparked endless debates about trademark law in various courts around the world, including in the U.S., France, Switzerland, and most recently at the EU Court of Justice.
Christian Louboutin began selling his high-heeled red-soled women’s shoes in the early nineties. The red soles gradually became a signature brand, somewhat comparable to the famous Burberry check pattern. The creator’s idea starts as a mere decorative design, just like any fashion design. But over the years, it gradually becomes a brand in itself because the public begins to perceive it as a source identifier even without any concurrent word mark on the product. Burberry registered its design as a two-dimensional trademark around the world; it recently sued Target in the U.S. for selling scarves with a similar design. As has been the practice of Burberry over the years, that is a trademark claim, not a copyright claim—which would present greater challenges to Burberry under U.S. law.
Back to Louboutin’s red soles: The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in 2012 that Louboutin owns a valid trademark for his red sole shoe design. Louboutin had taken Yves Saint Laurent to court for trademark infringement. The red sole trademark was deemed inherently distinctive, Louboutin having given ample evidence that the trademark had acquired secondary meaning. Those words sound like music for the fashion brand owner and its lawyers because it means that the court rewards years of investments in sales, advertising and free publicity. (As the court duly noted, Louboutin shoes are popular items to wear when walking red carpet events in the entertainment industry.) Louboutin’s victory was unfortunately limited to the court having confirmed the validity of the trademark; the court also ruled that the same trademark registration could not be invoked against shoes – such as those sold by YSL – that are monochrome red, covering the insole, outsole, heel and upper part.
The U.S. thereby paved the way for Louboutin, which is, after all, a French brand. A long-awaited judgment in the European Union was recently rendered by the EU Court of Justice. This time, it was the Dutch discounter Van Haren that was selling red-soled women’s shoes. The court held, after a long debate, that a red sole applied on the sole of a shoe can be a valid trademark in the EU. Under pre-2018 EU law, the shape of an object that “gives substantial value” to the product itself could not be registered as a trademark. (An example would be the distinctive shape of the Perrier bottle.) The court that the color red, as applied to a shoe, was not as a “shape,” as Van Haren had asserted; after all, Louboutin had not sought to register a shoe but merely a color applied at a certain location on shoes. Following the EU court’s guidance, the District Court in the Netherlands that had referred the issue will now ban the sale of Van Haren’s shoes throughout the European Union.
A crucial takeaway from this case is the reward given for the smart way in which the trademark had been registered. In many trademark systems, the registrant is allowed to specify its two- or three-dimensional object with a brief description. Louboutin’s lawyers had wisely specified the filing as follows: “The mark consists of the color red (Pantone 18‑1663TP) applied to the sole of a shoe as shown (the contour of the shoe is not part of the trade mark but is intended to show the positioning of the mark).”
That victory may not last very long, however. EU trademark law was recently amended, with the effect that not only “shapes” but also “other characteristics” giving substantial value to the product may be barred from trademark registration. This change in the law opens a new can of worms: in particular, it remains to be seen whether pre-2018 trademarks, such as the one owned by Louboutin, can be invalidated on the basis of the new law.
Credit: Diederik Stols | Guest Post
Phillips Nizer would like to thank Diederik Stols for the contribution of this post to the Fashion Industry Law Blog. Diederik is a partner at the law firm BOEKX Advocaten in The Netherlands where he specializes in intellectual property, media and entertainment and e-business. (http://www.boekx.nl/en/)
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