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/)
When one speaks about trademarks, the familiar adage “use it or lose it” comes to mind. But there is another important principal that can equally endanger your trademark rights: You must police the market, monitor the trademark register and take action to stop infringements, or you may find yourself without a trademark to enforce. Two recent cases demonstrate the importance of this latter principle.
LUSH is the trademark for a global brand of “hand made” cosmetic, fragrance and bath products sold by Cosmetic Warriors Limited (“CWL”), a company founded in England in the mid-1990’s. CWL opened its first Canadian retail store in 1996 and expanded to the United States in 2002. It now operates in excess of 940 stores in 49 countries, including 250 stores in North America, 200 of which are located in the United States. In 2002, it registered the LUSH trademark for use on t-shirts in Canada, but never filed a US registration for apparel. Pinkette Clothing Co. is a California company that, since 2003, has sold women’s clothing under the LUSH mark to retailers in the US and Canada, principally Nordstrom. Pinkette secured a US registration for the LUSH trademark for apparel in 2010. CWL did not oppose the issuance of registration for the mark, although its outside counsel apparently was notified through a trademark watch service of the application’s publication for opposition. In December 2014, CWL applied to register the trademark LUSH in the United States for clothing. When its application was rejected due to Pinkette’s pre-existing registration, it filed an application to cancel Pinkette’s mark. Instead of defending in the cancellation proceeding before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, Pinkette commenced a court action seeking a declaration that it did not infringe CWL’s trademark or, alternatively, that CWL’s failure to oppose Pinkette’s application in 2010 and its subsequent delay in seeking to cancel Pinkette’s registration barred CWL from enforcing its trademark rights against Pinkette. CWL counterclaimed for trademark infringement and to cancel Pinkette’s LUSH trademark registration. After trial, a jury found that Pinkette had infringed CWL’s LUSH trademark and that Pinkette’s registration should be canceled, but it also found that CWL had unreasonably delayed in asserting its claims. The court held that the delay barred CWL’s action and dismissed its claims. On appeal by CWL from the dismissal of its claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that CWL should have known of Pinkette’s usage as early as 2010, when Pinkette’s application for registration was published for opposition, that CWL had not been diligent in asserting its rights, and that Pinkette had been harmed by the delay because, in the interim, it had expended time and resources to develop its LUSH business. As a matter of equity, therefore, CWL would not be permitted to assert its claim either for trademark infringement or for cancellation of the Pinkette mark.
The second case demonstrates what can happen when many uses of a trademark for competitive goods are tolerated by the trademark owner for an extended period. The essential function of a trademark is to identify the source of the goods to which it is applied. Trade dress in the form of the design of a product or its packaging can also serve to identify a source and can serve as a trademark when it does. But if the design does not have a source-identifying function, referred to as “secondary meaning,” the design is not registrable for trade dress protection. When other third parties are permitted to use the design in the market for similar goods, the design cannot achieve the required secondary meaning.
Converse learned that lesson the hard way. In 2013, Converse registered a trademark for the “midsole” design of its Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers, consisting of the toe cap, textured toe bumper and two thin stripes along the side of the sole of the shoe. It claimed common-law trademark rights in the design based upon decades of its use prior to securing its registration. It subsequently filed a complaint with the International Trade Commission against Walmart, Skechers, Highline and New Balance seeking to bar the importation of sneakers it claimed infringed its registered midsole trademark and its common law trademark rights in the design. The International Trade Commission found that there was a likelihood of confusion between the Converse sneakers and the competitors’ sneakers. But the Commission also found that there had been a proliferation of competitors using the same design, on the same goods, sold to the same class of consumers over many years. As a result, the Commission concluded that the design could not be said to identify Converse as the source of the goods and, therefore, its trademark registration was invalid.
The lesson of these cases is clear. Adopting and registering a trademark is only the beginning of your work. To preserve and protect the trademark, you must police the market and assert your rights on a timely basis when you discover infringement by others. If you fail to do so, you may find that your investment in the trademark has been lost.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman
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.
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