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.
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
Recently, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld an injunction issued for the benefit of members of the Kardashian family against their cosmetic products licensee.
The Kardashians had terminated the license agreement due to the licensee’s alleged failure to pay royalties, among other alleged breaches. The licensee continued to exploit the license and sell products bearing the Kardashian trademarks, asserting, among other things, that “the Kardashians’ termination of the license agreement was invalid because the Kardashians breached the license agreement first . . . .”
The district court found for the Kardashians, holding, unremarkably, that a licensee has but two options when faced with a breach of the license agreement by the licensor: “First, the licensee can consider the contract terminated and stop performance. Second, the licensee can instead continue making royalty payments under the license agreement, continue using the trademarks, and then sue for damages. Regardless, the licensee cannot both stop paying royalties but nevertheless continue using the trademark.”
Although the options presented to a licensee by the district court decision are seemingly reasonable, they can present real risk to the licensee. For example, if the licensee had made significant investments and engaged a large staff to support the licensed business, terminating the agreement and closing down the licensed business not only will put any number of people out of work without advance notice, but also may result in defaults under the licensee’s banking arrangements and the loss of its entire business, thus giving rise to consequential damages potentially far in excess of any award for actual damages to which the licensee may be found to be entitled. Under the district court decision, the licensee’s option in these circumstances would be to continue the licensed business and bring an action against the licensor for damages, with the attendant relationship issues potentially adversely affecting performance, while continuing to make royalty payments with no guaranty that the licensee’s damages can be recouped, even after years of expensive litigation.
There is another quite unremarkable statement in the decision, which, although not in any way undercutting the ruling, may give some guidance as to how a licensee may attempt to protect itself in circumstances like those that the Kardashian licensee alleged it was facing. The court wrote, “like all contracts, trademark license agreements are governed by general principals of contract law.”
Among the most wonderful aspects of our contract laws is that the parties can, in effect and with few limitations, create their own law as to their rights and obligations under almost any circumstances. Accordingly, a licensee familiar with the Kardashian case might look to create a contractual structure whereby it would not have to pay royalties in the event of a significant breach by the licensor or, more realistically, a contractual structure by which it would not have to chase the licensor, at great expense, to recoup royalty payments in order to continue to exploit a generally valuable license agreement.
It is not uncommon to see license agreements in which the licensor has included a right for the licensor to set off amounts due and owing to it by a licensee against any outstanding payment obligations it may have to the licensee. However, even if a licensor would be willing to make this provision bilateral, these provisions are objectively problematic because they cannot be reliably drafted to prevent with certainty a party from merely alleging that the other owes it money in order to trigger the clause (unless, of course, a claimant party is required first to obtain a final judgment as to the amount allegedly owed, which brings us back to the problems with option number two). A better and more objective protection would be to allow the licensee to put its payments of royalties into escrow, with an obligation to take some formal legal action in accordance with the license agreement’s arbitration or litigation provisions before, or reasonably soon after, it notifies the licensor that the escrow account has been established. Assuming that the licensee establishes in the proceeding that it is entitled to damages, the escrow fund, even if less than the damage award, will be available to be applied toward the satisfaction of the judgment. It also is possible that establishing an escrow account and making payments into the escrow account will help relieve at least some of the tensions arising from awkward efforts to work together while the parties are adversaries in court or in an arbitration and perhaps even salvage the relationship after the legal action has ended.
Credit: Jonathan R. Tillem
A young lawyer walked by while working late, waving the striped tie he had just removed, announcing that, after 9:00 p.m., business casual was mandatory. European-born, my colleague’s tie had blue, white and green stripes angled downward from left to right (as seen by the wearer), in the classic British (and predominantly European) tradition. In Britain, the convention developed that, just as each clan in Scotland has its own tartan, each regiment, club and school would likely have its own, distinctive, diagonally striped tie.
On not quite as classic but by now traditional American ties, however, diagonal stripes run in the opposite direction, from right to left. There are various stories about why that is so. As with anything you can find on the Internet, you can discover much that is of interest, some of which might even prove to be true. You may learn, for instance, that the reason the ties slant in different directions is that European infantrymen shouldered their weapons differently from Americans and that their rifles ejected spent casings in an opposite direction. Those explanations are not only fogged by inaccuracy but bear little evidence of good fashion sense.
More credible is the claim by Brooks Brothers that it invented the American right to left downward slide on what it calls a Repp tie (freely admitting that an early spelling error caused it to get wrong the name of the French Rep ribbed silk fabric it used to make the ties). The idea was to bring American “roguish charm” to British tradition–an act that, as is often the case when Americans reference British traditions–acts as both homage and gentle satire. The British officers and gentlemen men who earned the right to wear regimental colors around their necks sometimes being quite sensitive about having earned the exclusive right to that privilege, Brooks Brothers reversed the direction of the stripe in an effort to soothe warrior sensitivities.
American schools have their Repp variations. My American university’s thick-striped tie, in navy blue and burgundy, is guaranteed to dull down almost any suit that goes with it.
The striped tie having now been commonplace for over a century, uncountable combinations of alternating stripe widths and colors have been used. A designer looking to protect his or her intellectual property rights in the patterns of ties may theoretically create a novel combination of colors and widths running in either direction–just enough to warrant a claim for copyright protection. Given the multiplicity of existing designs, that protection, if granted, would likely be a “thin copyright,” but in theory it could happen. The larger question is: why bother? Individual styles rarely last more than one season, after all. Would you really sue to protect the design, hoping the defendant does not dig into neckwear history to find something similar warn by officers of a British regiment since before it fought in the Battle of the Somme?
Each of those regimental, school and club ties identifies a source of origin–raising the possibility that a particular pattern of stripes can be protected as a trademark. As a practical matter, unless a stripe acquires such distinctiveness that the market accepts that it designates a specific source and so is not merely decorative, it is probably not protectable as a trademark. It is possible, again in theory, that a particular pattern of stripes could gain “secondary meaning.” That is, they now serve, through usage, advertising and the passage of time, as branding and devices not merely as pleasing patterns. If that should happen, is it indeed enough of a difference to prevent a claim of infringement to run the same pattern in the opposite direction, just as Brooks Brothers and other American makers did in order to distinguish their patterns from those British ties from which they freely borrowed both conventions and patterns? Much could depend on survey evidence of consumer habits and consumer awareness of the differences. That is another way of saying: if you did not know about all that before reading this post, the difference in the direction of the stripes probably is of no consequence to you; your response to the survey would therefore likely aid the plaintiff in a claim that simply changing the direction of the stripes did not make the defendant’s pattern less likely to cause infringing confusion.
That would support the generally held view that, when it comes to neckties, diagonal stripes, in whatever direction they run, are, in nearly all situations, open territory for designers. Within the quite narrow sartorial conventions of male business attire, however, there is not really all that much new that can likely be done with diagonal stripes in neckties. So, let us all celebrate an ongoing tradition and try not to worry too much about all this. A good striped tie will not necessarily be the one that a lawyer attempts to protect as intellectual property. It will, however, always be one that will work for him just about anywhere.
We would like to thank Stephen Sidkin of Fox Williams LLP, London, UK, for providing the inspiration and background for this post.
Credit: Alan Behr
Since the announcement of the result of the UK’s referendum about its future with the European Union so far as UK fashion is concerned, there has been no discernible change in the previous pattern of doing business. But the designs of business will change irrespective of what replaces the UK’s existing trade relationship with the EU.
Already there are forecasts of an increase in inflation for fashion and footwear prices. It follows that a supplier which fails to build into its contracts an inflation indexing provision is simply giving its customer an opportunity to make a greater margin on resale!
Correspondingly, UK fashion businesses sourcing clothes, footwear or accessories from overseas which do not include a currency conversion clause in their purchasing contracts are asking for trouble. The immediate fall in GBP on 24 June 2016 has been nowhere reversed.
But on the plus side, buying UK fashion assets – brands or trophy stores – in USD or pretty much any currency (excluding Bank of Toytown) has become a whole lot cheaper.
For those British fashion businesses not falling prey to overseas buyers, uncertainty can be expected to translate itself to an increasing use of pop ups and the taking of concessions in department stores.
And what of legal issues? The UK’s ‘affection’ for lawyers (”The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” Henry VI, Part II, act IV, Scene II) is likely to grow. This is because whilst the referendum will not in itself have any immediate implications in legal – terms – it could take years before the UK exits the EU officially – good lawyers who look to try and achieve their clients business objectives will consider what the referendum means.
As such, can it be said that the decision to leave the EU has or will frustrate the purpose of a contract so making it impossible to perform the contract? Possibly. But the English courts have consistently been unimpressed by an argument that a contract is frustrated because it is more expensive to fulfil or more difficult to perform.
But then does the Brexit vote constitute an event of force majeure? Unlikely as it would be necessary either for the contract to expressly state it to be so or for it to be interpreted as falling within a more general force majeure category, such as the act or decision of a government body. However, this has still to be tested in the English courts.
Will English choice of law and English court jurisdiction clauses continue to be upheld in the English courts given that these are currently governed by EU regimes? For the time being – yes. But in the future?
Equally, how will the intellectual property rights of fashion brands fare? The EU trade mark and the EU design, both pan European rights will almost certainly cease to cover the UK and this will result in a need to secure separate rights in the UK. The conversion of existing EU IP rights to national UK rights is likely but on what basis this will be implemented and whether it will involve re-examination of the rights is unclear.
The enforcement of IP rights may also throw up some interesting issues. What happens to a pan European injunction granted in favour of a non-UK company pre-Brexit? Does it automatically cover the UK post-Brexit or will it need to be registered in the UK to continue in place? This has the potential for re-opening a number of hard won disputes by designers and fashion brands alike.
Finally, what about grey imports? The UK could become a haven for parallel imports and worse if any transitional provisions on the protection of EU trade marks leave gaps in protection, the rights could be left unprotected if the fashion brand does not already have a UK trade mark in place.
A few years ago a successful telecoms company – Orange – claimed, “The future’s bright. The future’s Orange.” Today the future is grey as we try and see through an interesting period in the history of the UK.
*The Fashion Law Practice appreciates this guest post from Fox Williams LLP (London, UK).
If you are interested enough in fashion to be visiting this page, I cannot tell you anything new about Roy Halston Frowick, better known as Halston. He was unique in many ways, starting with the fact that he launched his career with a single piece: the pillbox hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as president, in 1961. (The fact that Mrs. Kennedy was also wore a Halston pillbox while sitting in the car next to the president as he was assassinated, in Dallas, led to the style going out of fashion in the blink of an eye.) By 1983, Halston’s company, Halston Limited, was owned by Norton Simon, Inc. Unless Halston had agreed to all that at some point, the likely explanation was that there had been no form of what lawyers call a non-assignment clause in place in the relationship that Halston, the man, had set up with the owners of Halston, the brand. In any event, within about one year, Halston was no longer designing for Halston Limited. He died in 1990, a man without his own name in design. Once that disassociation occurred, Halston, the brand, which still exists, has a life of its own, and it has since changed hands seven times more.
Catherine Malandrino recently filed a lawsuit against Elie Tahari and others, claiming she was wrongfully deprived of rights under a deal by which she sold her brand (and, for all intents and purposes, her professional name) to a company controlled in part by Tahari, which employed her as its creative director. Malandrino had only minority representation on her new employer’s management committee. She alleges that her co-venturers and others routed around her in subsequent dealings, damaging the brand and failing to compensate her as agreed. Although the complaint is passionately composed, it does not directly address what appears to be the underlying issue: Malandrino and her representatives did not provide, in the agreements she signed, the kind of contractual protections that could have reduced or eliminated many of the alleged wrongs and that would have given her final say as to what was and was not a Catherine Malandrino creation.
On a happier note there is the long, circular tale of Joseph Abboud. His eponymous menswear line debuted in 1987. His name was registered as part of trademarks that he licensed to a joint venture in which he took an interest through a corporation he owned. He then sold off his equity interest and worked as a consultant to the company that now exclusively owned his name in the fashion business—until creative differences caused an abrupt. Abboud tried to start a new brand called “jaz,” making it known in the trade that he was the designer. In the lawsuit filed by the company that owned the Joseph Abboud trademarks, the court ruled, “Abboud is permanently enjoined and restricted from using her personal name to sell, market, or otherwise promote, goods, products, and services to the consuming public.” In all, a humiliating result for one of my favorite menswear designers. Several sales of branding rights and changes in price point later, man and brand were effectively reunited; in 2014, Abboud became chief creative director at Men’s Wearhouse, which is the current owner of the Joseph Abboud brand and trademarks.
And we must not forget that there are many success stories. Karl Lagerfeld is still a walking brand, regardless of whatever house for which he has already has served or may yet serve as designer. Ralph Lauren’s name is owned by his company, which is public and so owned by many shareholders—but he has set up everything quite nicely and is surely not losing sleep worrying about whether he will still be designing under his own name.
The message: every good designer is either a good business person or should work in close company with someone else who is just that—and every good business person watching over a designer’s name should have a lawyer nearby who knows what to do to keep the designer and his name permanently in each other’s company.
Next: we will show a bit of how that works.
Credit: Alan Behr
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