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.
When Presidential Security Interferes with Revenue
and the Customer Service Experience
In the words of a troupe of Britons, first heard long ago, “And now for something completely different.” This post is a transatlantic collaboration, co-authored by members of the fashion and real estate law practices of Phillips Nizer LLP, of New York City, and Fox Williams LLP, of London. The firms address the same legal question from the perspective of New York law, in the segment authored by the Phillips Nizer, and English law, in the segment authored by Fox Williams.
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The secondary residence of U.S. President Donald Trump is located in the eponymous skyscraper that bears his name located in an area of Upper Fifth Avenue in New York City, at the apex of the most important and most expensive shopping district in the Western Hemisphere. Prized retail space can be found in the building and in surrounding properties. This is not the typical environment for establishing a security cordon for the protection of the President of the United States.
If President Trump continues to maintain Trump Tower as a secondary residence and working office (as he had done while President-elect), we can surmise that protective and preventative measures that have been in effect for weeks, will continue. Anyone brave enough to attempt to enter the still-cocooned retail spaces will receive a quick course in world-class security. You have to talk your way past federal and local law enforcement officers to get into Gucci, which is in Trump Tower but accessible by the street, to say nothing of what you need to do to get into the building’s atrium for the chance to score a latte at Starbucks. In short, the conversion of Trump Tower into “White House North” has not been good for business for any tenant who is not named Trump.
New York City and State Law
The retail tenants may seek ways to mitigate their losses. The law and most leases, however, are not particularly sympathetic to this type of economic collateral damage, which typically falls under the category of “consequential damages.”
As a general rule, a tenant’s choice of remedies when things go wrong in a lease is to seek an abatement of rent, or to seek to cancel the lease. Lost profits are considered speculative by the courts and are almost never awarded in cases involving commercial leases. Most commercial leases have specific prohibitions against the award of lost profits.
One possible alternate claim would be for what is known as “constructive eviction.” That happens whenever something within a landlord’s control substantially interferes with the use and enjoyment of the leased premises. The catch here is that it has to be something the landlord does or fails to do; in the case of the President, however, the security is not his own but that of the United States government, working closely with the New York City Police Department.
Many leases provide that, if access to the premises is thwarted or impeded by fire or other damage, rent will be abated. For those leases, there could be support for the claim that the extraordinary event of government restraint on access forms the basis for an abatement of rent.
New York courts have held that a party may be relieved from its duty to perform whenever an unforeseen event has occurred that destroys the underlying reasons for performing the contract. The argument that the United States Secret Service and the local police have turned your block into the Maginot Line is not a familiar one, but it could, at least in theory, gain traction if damage is shown to be acute enough.
Finally, there is always a claim against the government—but that is probably pushing it a bit. Whenever property is taken from a private individual by the government under “eminent domain,” there must be payment of just compensation. There is an exception to the rule that provides that there is no compensation when a taking is due to the exercise of “police power.” An example of police power is the right to damage or destroy private property (without compensation to the owner) when such an act is necessary to protect the public interest. If you want to know what that means, watch the next time someone parks an expensive car in front of a fire hydrant when a blaze has started and fire fighters arrive with their axes.
In short, there is no clear way, through the use of litigation, for retailers caught within the security cordon or even just outside it to seek redress. However, the President is nothing if not a deal maker, and as a sage old lawyer once suggested, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” It cannot hurt to contact the landlord and practice your take on “the art of the deal.”
The position under English law has differing aspects (and certainly uses a different legal language) but is similar. It is true that this could be an issue that is unique to the circumstances in which these retail tenants find themselves, but it raises issues pertinent to landlords and tenants in both jurisdictions. One can easily envisage similar circumstances in London, for example, affecting footfall to tenants’ retail stores and outlets, be that at the instigation of the state, or from other sources. What if a prominent politician or other VIP took offices in Regent Street or Bond Street? What if state security demanded establishing a similar cordon for some other reason, one that interfered with the tenants of prime retail space in the capital?
In English law, the concept of a tenant (as opposed to a landlord) seeking to “cancel” or “determine” a lease is almost unheard of without the agreement of the landlord (for example, a surrender or a break clause). Whilst English contract law has well-established principles of breach of a contract leading to its termination, this does not translate well to the realm of landlord and tenant law, where a tenant is seeking to terminate the lease (this is not the case with the landlord, who can usually seek to forfeit the lease in the event of a tenant’s breach).
So, with this avenue all but closed to tenants, they would usually need to focus on the terms of the lease itself to seek damages or a court order that the interference must stop.
Like our U.S. colleagues, English lawyers would express doubt as to whether the concept of rent abatement can apply to these facts. For the reasons given above, where an English lease contains a rent abatement – or “rent cesser” – clause, that clause normally relates to circumstances in which the property in question is damaged or destroyed (usually due to circumstances for which the landlord is insured) only to the extent that it is uninhabitable. If that is the case, the rent will not be payable whilst the property cannot be occupied. It might be stretching matters too far (without specific wording in the lease) to extend this well-established concept to fit these facts. Trump Tower (or the hypothetical English equivalent) is not a property that is damaged; it is the access to it that has been compromised.
If this offers little comfort to tenants, there are two further (and largely overlapping) English law concepts that might assist. English law has long recognized that landlords must not “derogate from their grant” and the obligation to allow the tenant “quiet enjoyment” of the property. If proved, they entitle a tenant to sue the landlord for damages.
The former principle states that, in granting the lease, the landlord has agreed to confer certain benefits on a tenant, and should not do anything that substantially deprives the tenant of those benefits. The latter requires the landlord to ensure that there is no interference with the tenant’s possession and enjoyment of the property itself.
English cases on the above where tenants have succeeded, have included erecting advertising billboards obscuring the tenant’s premises, alterations by a landlord that discourage passers-by, and causing noise and disruption by way of building works adjacent to the tenant’s property.
So, it would appear that English tenants might be better placed in these circumstances than their U.S. counterparts. However, as in America, tenants are likely to run into the same problem they would encounter had they set up shop on Fifth Avenue instead of Regent Street: is the presence of such high security something instigated (or even sanctioned) by the landlord, or is it a matter of national security, out of the hands of whatever corporate vehicle happens to own the freehold of a given retail unit? The unfortunate truth is likely to be that the security presence is not the ‘fault’ of the landlord, and thus, the landlord cannot be said to have violated either legal principle.
Tenants may therefore find themselves, as in America, caught between a rock and a hard place: a landlord who is ‘not at fault’ and a rent abatement clause that does not do enough to protect their interests. Perhaps one for English tenants’ lawyers to think about too when drafting leases of high-end retail and fashion outlets in the busiest and most desirable of the U.K.’s shopping districts.
Credits: Steven J. Rabinowitz
Steve is counsel in Phillips Nizer’s Real Estate Law practice.
At Fox Williams, Liz advises on a broad range of commercial property transactions, both freehold and leasehold, including property management, investment acquisitions and disposals, secured lending, property finance, general landlord and tenant issues. Tom is a property litigator, and heads up the firm’s Real Estate dispute resolution practice.
Visit the Fox Williams Fashion Law Group website at www.fashionlaw.co.uk.
Phillips Nizer would like to thank Liz and Tom for providing a non-U.S. perspective on this very interesting, and in this instance, extremely unique and unusual circumstance in real estate law affecting the landlord-tenant relationship.
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
In most cases, a new store tenant will require work to be done to make the premises suitable for its purposes. As a rule, a landlord will insist that no work can be done without prior approval. That puts the prospective tenant on the horns of a dilemma while negotiating a lease: if an architect is hired to design the plans while negotiations on the lease are ongoing and the lease is not ultimately signed, time and money invested in the premises will be lost. If the plans are not prepared, however, the opening of the store may be delayed as the landlord goes through the approval process, or worse, the landlord forces the tenant to change the plans. The result: the tenant may not get the store it wants on the date the tenant needs it.
Whether or not to advance the money for plans is always an individual consideration, depending on the relationship with the landlord and the time pressure to open the store.
Even if the tenant prepares the plans and the landlord approves, there is still the issue of getting the approval of the local authorities. Estimating the time that it will take to get approvals is crucial in calculating when the store will open. Without that information, planning for seasonal inventory can be thrown off, with potentially serious business consequences. Ideally, a tenant would have a contingency in every lease for cancellation if the plans are not approved by the authorities. However, it can be difficult to get landlords to agree to that in good measure because of an inability to predict what plans the prospective tenant will submit and what the official reaction to them will be.
However, if the plans are already completed and approved, the municipal authority will likely have someone who would be willing to meet with the tenant’s architect to give an indication of whether there will be problems and to provide an estimate of how long the approval process might take. In some cases, the government representative would also be able to alert the tenant as to any existing problems in the building, especially if the landlord has not been cooperative. It is, therefore, often a good idea to pay a visit to the local building department once plans are completed and approved.
Credit: Steven J. Rabinowitz
Steve is counsel in Phillips Nizer’s Real Estate Law practice.
I was struck by the news that Target’s limited edition Lily Pulitzer collection sold out within hours, after Target took its website off-line in the face of extraordinary demand when the collection went on sale. It is surprising that a sophisticated retailer and a well-known fashion brand did not expect either the demand or that it would manifest itself in a stampede to Target’s website. Can it be that fashion brands and retailers do not appreciate the fundamental shift in consumer behavior of which this is merely the latest manifestation?
As the mother of a daughter who is what the media has taken to calling a millennial, I have had a highly personal view of the change in what was once a fundamental consumer activity: shopping. For me, shopping, which includes searching for luxury brands at bargain prices, is a treasured leisure time activity. It was an activity I used to share with my daughter. The siren call of the mall in Florida, California or wherever else I might be where there was a mall was an essential not-to-be-missed feature of any vacation. And in Manhattan, which has no malls, a stroll on Fifth Avenue or Madison Avenue was a wonderful activity on a nice day.
That stopped when my daughter became a teenager. The one and only shopping trip we have taken in the last 5 years was to find a gown for the prom. That’s not to say that my daughter is not obsessed with fashion or is not an inveterate shopper. She spends more time shopping than I ever did. But the only stores she visits in person are Sephora, to play with cosmetics, the Apple store, to play with gadgets, and thrift shops and vintage stores to find that perfect ugly Christmas sweater or 60’s bargain accessory.
Instead, she shops on-line at all hours of the day and night, particularly when she is procrastinating to avoid writing papers or completing other school assignments. She shops on her iphone, on her iPad and on her Macbook. She orders everything she is interested in on-line, preferring to try things on in the comfort of her own room, returning what doesn’t work and keeping what does.
For her, on-line shopping is also a highly social and communal activity. She sends links of potential purchases to friends and solicits their opinions. She takes selfies of herself in garments to poll her friends on what she should keep. She follows the brands she likes on social media so that she knows what’s coming and when the sales start.
None of this is new. It has been going on now for years. It is the reason why malls are dying and why some teen retailers have struggled while others have thrived. It has dramatic implications for fashion brands and retailers and important implications for lawyers who serve them. We all must master the internet, social media and the changes in distribution channels that these portend. So bear in mind all: this is the generation that killed the compact disc and record stores and is well on its way to killing iTunes, even though it consumes more music from all over the world than we ever did. It is killing the book store and books (college texts can be rented, ordered on-line and sometimes consumed electronically), although it actually reads more than we do. You’d better get with the “what I want, when I want it, without getting dressed” generation or you’ll soon be a relic of the past. And message to Target and other retailers: if you frustrate your customers and they see your goods as something unattainably dangled out of their reach, you’ve lost them as customers. Millennials do not take frustration well, and the web offers lots of alternatives that are more accommodating. Like Top Shop!
Credit: Helene M. Freeman
Over the years, retailers have liberalized their returns policies. I have been offered thirty days, ninety days, sometimes one hundred eighty days in which to receive forgiveness if I should change my mind. I have even been quietly assured that, if I sign up as a preferred customer, the returns privilege is open-ended, which I suppose means that you can bring back your bar mitzvah suit after you wear it a second time for your retirement party (as long as you have the receipt). Even if formal policy says no to a return, it may simply be ignored if you are polite about it and willing to accept a store credit as a compromise.
In part to soften customer concerns about the risks of buying online, retailers have made buying from the Internet into a shop at home service, making returns as easy as putting the product back into the box, sticking on a return label and sending it back from whence it came—sometimes at no additional cost. (Shoe purchases seem to be particularly blessed in that way.)
When the goods come from a boots-on-the-ground shopping experience, customers are increasingly becoming their own shop at home services, scooping up whatever looks promising (sometimes in alternative sizes and colors) and making final purchase decisions in the privacy of their own bedrooms. The result of all this back and forth is that is that, depending on the category, returns can equal as much as forty percent of a retailer’s sales—perhaps even more in seasonal spikes.
When an item is marked “final sale,” however, the retailer is saying: “I’ve had enough of all that; I really want this one to move; here it is at a very good price I would never otherwise accept; now take it and don’t ever let me see it again.” We can all understand why a no-returns policy makes sense for underwear. But consider this as well: every luxury retailer has stories about evening gowns returned the day after a well-publicized big event, fragrant with perfume. For the same reason, it is understandable why a jeweler would make returns difficult or even impossible—to avoid, that is, turning into a free lending library for expensive necklaces and bracelets.
So by all means, take advantage of final sale offers. (By definition, it is your last chance to buy the item anyway.) But keep in mind that there is no turning back when you do. Your moment as your own style consultant has come: if you buy it, you own it, so make sure you like it at point of sale.
A special, final and heartfelt warning: if you are a guy with a wife or girlfriend who examines what you wear as if your reputation and hers depended on it (How, you may ask, would I know of such a guy?), you had better bring her along, just to be sure. If she first sees it when you bring it home and on the spot offers an opinion along the lines of, “What were you thinking? Take that thing back!” it is no time for your response to start with, “Uh…”
Credit: Alan Behr
Some retailers have embraced the strategy of opening a large number of small stores rather than focusing on a few flagships. Advantages include minimizing the chance of significant economic loss in any given location and increased exposure on a national level.
One drawback to this strategy is that, with the greater number of leases to be negotiated, there is an attendant possibility of large legal fees. The retailer could, with justification, believe that, since the rent is small for each location, the legal fees should be similarly modest.
However, the retail tenant’s counsel cannot be any less vigilant in negotiating these store leases. That is because certain types of liabilities can be very costly, no matter the size of the store or the amount of the rent. Those liabilities generally arise from problems with the physical condition of the store.
Landlords come in all sizes and shapes, and often different negotiation strategies are called for depending on who is on the other side of the table. But there is one thing all landlords have in common: they want the tenant to accept the premises “as is” and be responsible for all physical problems within the demised premises. “You have inspected it,” they will say, “or if you haven’t done so, you should do so at once.” But by the very nature of the small store strategy, the tenant is opening in locations where it is unfamiliar with local laws and may not wish to undertake the expense of hiring local architects and expediters to inspect and report on real or potential problems at each location.
Typically, the tenant retailer knows it will have to do work to prepare the store for its occupancy, but the tenant will likely also be unwilling to accept responsibility for any major construction needed to prepare the space for its occupancy. One would imagine that landlords would feel the same way, but often that is not the case. Even if we leave aside landlords who wrongly seek to conceal defective or environmentally unsafe conditions and look at honest landlords, we find that it is not uncommon for them to worry about their buildings being consistently up to code. Even if the building was in full legal compliance at the time of original construction, laws change, and repairs and replacements over time may not be in compliance with the updated code. The big fear is that, when a retail tenant applies to have its plans approved for its leased space, the building department will return with a laundry list of upgrades that are essential to bring the entire building up to code.
Retail tenants must anticipate and respect that fear, and savvy tenant counsel should be able to handle the concerns of the landlords with sensitivity (and often creativity) to help the landlords overcome their fears. The solutions that arise in these situations, when parties cooperate and reasonable compromises are made, can be mutually beneficial. But one thing is certain: the goal of counsel for the retail tenant is to do what is reasonably necessary to help keep costs both predictable and under control.
Credit: Steven J. Rabinowitz
Steve is counsel in Phillips Nizer’s Real Estate Law practice.