Adidas Files Trademark Infringement Suit Against Marc Jacobs Over Stripes

U.S. law does not grant copyright protection to clothes, because they are considered by the Copyright Act to be useful articles which cannot be protected by copyright. Indeed, under Section 101 of the Copyright Act, “the design of a useful article… shall be considered a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work [and thus protectable by copyright] only if, and only to the extent that, such design incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” That means that if a part of the design of the garment can be separated from the useful part of the garment, this separate part can be protected by copyright.3963999187_399a43d93d_z

Fashion companies can also protect some of their designs by applying for a patent or by registering them as a trademark. Such is the case for Adidas’ three stripes design, which is also a registered trademark (the Three-Stripes Mark).

Does that mean that no other designer may feature three parallel stripes, or even four parallel stripes, on a particular garment? This will have to be decided by the District Court of Oregon, where adidas America and adidas AG (Plaintiffs) filed suit on April 8 against Marc Jacobs International, LLC (Defendant), claiming that that a Marc by Marc Jacobs’s jacket featuring four parallel stripes on its sleeves infringes adidas’ Three-Stripes Mark.

Plaintiffs allege that this constitutes trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and unfair and deceptive trade practices. They are asking the District Court of Oregon to permanently enjoin Defendant from manufacturing and selling these models, or other models which would similarly infringe on the Three-Stripes Mark, to stop using this mark, and to order the destruction of goods and materials using the mark. They are also asking the court to award them monetary and punitive damages and to enjoin Defendant to disgorge all profits from the sale of the allegedly infringing goods.

The case is Adidas America, Inc. v. Marc Jacobs, 3:15-cv-00582.

The Three-Stripes Mark

Plaintiffs own several trademarks for three parallel stripes on garments, as, for instance, the registered trademark No. 2,058,619 for “sports and leisure wear, namely shirts” which consists of “three parallel bands positioned along the length of each sleeve of a shirt.” It also owns several trademarks which use the term “3 stripes,” such as THE BAND WITH THE 3 STRIPES mark, which is registered in class 25 for sport and leisure wear.

Plaintiffs contend that the public recognizes these three-stripes as an indication of origin of adidas  goods, and listed in its complaint several uses by the media of three stripes “when describing adidas and its products.

Adidas Y-3 line

The adidas Y-3 line is designed by Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. It was first introduced in 2002 and is sold in department stores and in adidas’ stores. Many of the Y-3 clothes feature three stripes on their shoulders, front or back, or on the sleeves.

Marc Jacob’s Jacket

Plaintiffs allege that a jacket manufactured and sold by Marc Jacobs infringes the Three-Stripes Mark. The complaint provides photographs of the jacket which features four stripes on its sleeves, a design which the complaint states is likely to be confused by the public for an adidas Three-Stripe Mark.

Similarity and Trademark Infringement

As this is not a copyright infringement suit, but a trademark infringement suit, the court will not examine if both designs are substantially similar. Instead, it will examine if the stripes featured on Defendant’s model is recognized by the general public as an indication of origin of goods, and if there is a likelihood of confusion between the stripes as used by defendant on its jackets and the Three-Stripes Mark. The Oregon district court will use the Ninth Circuit Sleekcraft factors to determine a likelihood of confusion. These factors are the strength of the mark, the proximity of the goods, the similarity of the marks, evidence of actual confusion, the marketing channels used, the degree of care exercised by customers, the defendant’s intent in selecting the mark, and the likelihood of expansion of the product lines.

It remains to be seen if the court will be convinced that four stripes on a garment infringes the Three Stripes Mark. However, if Plaintiffs are unsuccessful in their trademark infringement claim, they may still be successful in their dilution claim.

Trademark Dilution

The complaint also alleges that the Three-Stripe Mark is famous, and that its unauthorized use by Defendant dilutes its distinctiveness in violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c), which entitles the owner of a famous mark to an injunction against a third party using a mark in commerce “that is likely to cause dilution by blurring or dilution by tarnishment of the famous mark, regardless of the presence or absence of actual or likely confusion, of competition, or of actual economic injury.”

Since October 2006, when the Trademark Dilution Revision Act was enacted, a Plaintiff only needs to prove a likelihood of dilution, not an actual dilution. The Act defines a famous mark as a mark “widely recognized by the general consuming public of the United States as a designation of source of the goods or services of the mark’s owner,” which may be determined by the courts using several factors, such as the duration, extent, and geographic reach of advertising and publicity of the mark, the amount, volume, and geographic extent of sales of goods or services offered under the mark, and the extent of actual recognition of the mark. The Three-Stripes Mark is certainly famous, and is also certainly distinctive.

Dilution by blurring is defined by 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c) as an “association arising from the similarity between a mark or trade name and a famous mark that impairs the distinctiveness of the famous mark.” The law lists several factors which may be used by the courts to determine whether the junior mark is likely to cause blurring, including the degree of similarity between the mark or trade name and the famous mark, the degree of inherent or acquired distinctiveness of the famous mark, the extent to which the owner of the famous mark is engaging in substantially exclusive use of the mark, the degree of recognition of the famous mark, whether the user of the mark or trade name intended to create an association with the famous mark, and any actual association between the mark or trade name and the famous mark.

Therefore, even if the court would find that the stripes on the Marc Jacobs jacket do not infringe Plaintiffs’ trademark, the court may still find that they are so similar as to dilute the Three-Stripes Mark.

Image is Courtesy of Flickr user Kick Photo under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license.

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