Because almost everybody wears glasses of some kind, part of the pathway of the ascent of a designer will quite often include an eyewear line. Personal optics is a field in which design must coexist with the demands of mechanics, durability and, for vision eyewear, medical requirements. With those few exceptions that inevitably come along, if what you find fits, does the job and, just maybe makes you look cool or at least not uncool–you will generally be content.
Of course, there are unique eyewear designs, but intellectual property law is tough on those who claim design rights for functional objects. Patent protection is reserved for the kind of innovation that rises to the level of the better mousetrap–meaning, by metaphor, that the new trap indeed should catch mice in a way not previously practiced or commonly anticipated. For the non-functional design elements of eyewear, protection can sometimes be obtained by design patent, copyright and either a trademark or trade dress. (Trade dress protection on the features of an object of any kind, rather than the packaging it came in, is a challenge for a different discussion.) There are particular requirements for each form of protection, meaning it is possible that one style of eyewear may qualify for one form of protection, for more than one form or for none at all.
By way of some exaggeration for a point, should you wish to protect a new eyewear design, you might have a credible chance of having the law support your claim if it were for sunglasses with not two but three lenses. That is to say, try designing frames on which a third, completely useless lens would be placed smack in the middle, over the bridge, to shade an imaginary third eye. To improve your chances, across the top of the frames place an original, melancholic relief illustrating a tragic moment from Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” Along each temple add a declaratory statement such as: “Some People Will do Anything for Attention.” I am not going to speculate on your likely sales of that item during the fall-winter season, but some elements may prove to be protectable, as may a combination of elements.
This is not to suggest that you have to go quite that far to obtain rights for eyewear. All exaggeration aside, I have been quite successful doing so over the years for more mundane but far more elegant original variations on eyewear construction and design. And I have been able to defend those elements against infringement. The point is that, for something as common as glasses, whether for reading, vision or protection against the sun, you have to be inventive to come up with something strongly protectable. When you do, you would be well-advised to consult with your attorney about what elements, alone or in combination, can be protected by copyright, design patent, trademark or trade dress. You do not need to add the third lens to make that happen. You simply need to know enough to ask your lawyers whether what you have created is legally protectable, as well as being, of course, something both functional and beautiful.
Credit: Alan Behr
As we have discussed here, fashion is about nothing if not intellectual property, and most fashion intellectual property is comparatively easy to copy or emulate without great expense. If you have any success at what you do, the odds are fairly good that someone, somewhere on the planet will come out with what you believe to be a brand or product that infringes on your proprietary rights.
You will then have come to a fork in the road. The failure to take action to protect your rights may be used against you later. In the case of trade dress, for example, your silence may be used as evidence of everything from a showing that you suffered no lasting harm to the de facto abandonment of the right to the exclusive use of the trade dress. On the other hand, if you send out a strong cease and desist letter with a clear threat to sue for non-compliance but do not follow up in a reasonable time with a lawsuit should the recipient not comply, you may be deemed estopped (barred) from filing your lawsuit at a later date. That is why cease and desist letters typically threaten the “possibility” or the “potential” of the initiation of litigation—to avoid being estopped by the failure to carry out an explicit, promised remedial act.
Perhaps even worse, if you send a cease and desist letter that is strong enough to make the recipient fear an imminent lawsuit, and if the recipient believes it was within its rights to use the intellectual property that you claim infringes, it may make a preemptory strike. It would do that by filing a declaratory judgment action, asking a court to declare that what it has done was in fact lawful. To use jargon, when you have been so “d.j.’ed,” you have lost the “race to the courthouse door,” possibly to a “forum shopper.” For example, having been ready to sue in New York, where you are located or where you believe the law is favorable to your position, you may find yourself defending an action on the other coast in a court chosen by the plaintiff because it is near to its home base or in the belief that the law there is more favorable to it.
So there is an art in knowing when to send a cease and desist letter and what the tone and the content of the letter should be. As you may remember from your days on the playground, consider the advice you got never to make a threat you are not prepared to carry out and, of course, never to play the bully—because you just do not know what may come back at you.
Credit: Alan Behr
One of the ways to build brand identity in fashion is to create strong customer recognition of a particular color as a signature of the brand. That has value across all lines of commerce. We can be sure, for instance, that no one will consider starting a worldwide package delivery service that uses solid-brown trucks and driver uniforms. In fashion, there are many examples, from Tory Burch’s orange doors to the red outsoles of Christian Louboutin footwear—the latter of which became the subject of important litigation in the United States.
In the Louboutin case, Louboutin v. Yves Saint Laurent Am. Holding, 696 F.3d 206 (2d Cir. 2013), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that Louboutin could retain its trademark registration for red lacquered outsoles for “women’s high fashion designer footwear” in which the outsole and upper were of contrasting colors. What that means is that, if your competing shoes are monochrome, as was the YSL style (which had a red heel and insole as well), you can use red lacquered outsoles. But for all other such footwear, Louboutin owns the exclusive right in the United States to use lacquered red for outsoles. Both sides in the case were therefore able to claim victory: the particular Yves Saint Laurent style did not infringe the Louboutin trademark because it was indeed all red, but the Louboutin trademark was not stricken from the register, simply limited to what Louboutin has mostly been doing all long—which is to put lacquered red outsoles on women’s footwear with contrasting uppers.
It is not often that litigation ends in such a win-win scenario, but the message remains the same in any situation: If you have an important color that you believe is part of your brand’s “signature,” work with counsel to structure efforts to seek protection of that color as an element of both a trademark (a brand identifier in the form of words and logotypes) and trade dress (a brand identifier in the form of particular elements of product packaging and, with a bit more effort, the products themselves).
There are related issues. One is the color spectrum: if you are claiming the color blue, what range between blue-tinted white to midnight blue, on one hand, and green-blue to gray-blue, on the other, are you claiming as your true blue? Another issue is the business spectrum: what are the product categories and the markets (by type of customer, price point, etc.) for which you are claiming exclusivity for your color? And as the Louboutin case shows us, much may ride on the positioning of your “signature” color on products (and packaging) and your ability to prove that the marketplace understands that the signature is yours alone.
The takeaway from all this remains much the same as with other questions concerning branding in the fashion and accessories sectors: marketers should work closely with lawyers and get them involved as early as possible in the decisions that they make.
Credit: Alan Behr
Luxury, being the thematic opposite of necessity, must be at least as much about what you desire as what you need. Building a brand to fill that role requires both diligence and self-restraint.
A luxury brand and its products should be readily identifiable as superior to both existing and aspirational customers. That is not to say that that non-luxury brands and their products do not require legal protection; we are simply recognizing that the luxury premium adds a new class to the market—those aspirational customers—whose perceptions and desires are vital to the future of brands in the luxury sector. For that reason, and many others, it is particularly important for luxury brands to work with counsel to identify and protect all the important proprietary elements that are capable of being protected. That includes protection, where appropriate, by trademark (and trade dress) registration, design patent registration, and—something rather unique to the United States—copyright registration.
With few exceptions, it is generally better to err on the side of more rather than less when it comes to registrations. Styles and style names that will only be in the catalog for a season or two are usually not worth the trouble, but anything of medium to long-term consequence to the bottom line and brand value almost certainly is. In these posts, we will go into more detail about various forms of legal protection, but a key guideline is this: once each season, have a look at what engages the public with your brand and your products and how that engagement might lead you to adjust your legal protection program. There is probably no more important work that marketers and counsel can undertake together in order to make your protection program both thorough and cost-effective.
This year, the International Trademark Association held its annual meeting in Hong Kong, giving the world’s intellectual property lawyers the opportunity to congregate in an important commercial city where branding is all. Once a playground for bargain hunters for, consumer electronics and rapidly cut and stitched men’s suits, Hong Kong has become a destination for consumers of luxury goods. Indeed, I cannot remember seeing another city in which almost any international luxury brand I can think of had more than one boutique. What was particularly interesting this time is that, for various reasons, visitors from the mainland were uncommonly absent, with the result that, in every store in which I had a look, the sales floors were empty of patrons. That may be a temporary problem, but it raises a bigger question: as surely as luxury is about something greater than necessity, it is also about relative inaccessibility; it is an experience over and above the ordinary that is made all the more desirable by its very lack of ubiquity. When luxury is everywhere, can it start to look commonplace? The risk is that new entrants will have a chance to succeed (in no small part due to their newness and limited production) in poaching customers sated by what has become too familiar. That may be healthy for the marketplace but not for you if you have a valuable brand.
There are no perfect formulas, of course, but here is a general reflection that might well apply when protecting a luxury brand and its products: under law, more is better; when preserving the reputation of a luxury brand and its products in a business sense, less may sometimes indeed be more.
Credit: Alan Behr