Media & Technology

Important Trademark Litigation Victory For HBA Client Affirmed on Appeal

Essentially concluding over five years of litigation, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on November 2, 2017 upheld the trial court’s determination that the sale of Clipps bag closures by Schutte Bagclosures Inc. (“Schutte”) did not infringe any trademark rights Kwik Lok Corporation (“Kwik Lok”). The court further upheld the lower court’s determination that Kwik Lok’s claimed trademark rights in the shape of bag closures were invalid because the shape was “functional” and that Kwik Lok’s trademark registration for that shape should be cancelled.
The same parties previously faced each other in court in the Netherlands, where the judge also ruled that Kwik Lok did not have valid trademark rights in their bag closures.

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Lululemon Sues Under Armour For Design Patent Infringement Based on Sport Bra Strap Design

On July 7th, athletic apparel company Lululemon Athletica filed suit against competitor Under Armour, alleging that three models of Under Armour sport bras infringed on design patents held by Lululemon as well as Lululemon’s trade dress.  Specifically, Lululemon asserted that the interwoven strap design on Under Armour’s products closely resembled designs protected by patents Lululemon filed in 2014 and 2016, as well as a design first sold by Lululemon in 2011 as part of its Energy Bra model.

Design patents typically do not offer wide protection for fashion products. While relatively cheap to obtain compared to utility patents, design patents typically still cost several thousand dollars to register.  Furthermore, design patents can only be obtained if an item has been on sale for less than a year and fashion designers often do not want to commit to a registration until and unless a design demonstrates that it will be a core product line going forward.  Trade dress, on the other hand, does not require any formal filing with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). However, those seeking trade dress protection must also prove that the design has no functional component, as well as prove that the item conveys a distinctive secondary meaning to consumers that would be jeopardized by the sale of imitations.

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Designers Are Using Social Media to Fight Knockoffs

The fashion industry is inundated with allegations of copyright violations and copied designs, often occurring when a small designer or brand claims that a large retailer or brand copies its designs. Traditionally, disputes over copied designs have been resolved through the legal system. Increasingly, however, social media and in particular Instagram has become a popular medium for small designers to fight back against larger companies that they believe copied their designs. With the support of passionate followers, these designers take to Instagram to spot and shame duplicates quickly, frequently resulting in the alleged offenders ceasing sales of the design in question.

Instagram has emerged as a channel to fight back against duplicate for several reasons. As HBA lawyer and NYU fashion law professor Douglas Hand stated in the recent article Designers Take Copyright Infringement Into Their Own Hands in the Business of Fashion, “copyright protection for designs, even post Star Athletica [v. Varsity Brands], is relatively thin when compared to Europe and other jurisdictions.” Therefore, the U.S. legal system may be an insufficient means for designers to successfully protect their designs. Additionally, smaller brands and up-and-coming designers often have neither the financial resources nor the time to litigate. Litigation is also undesirable because these small brands and designers frequently just want the offending designs removed from market and do not want a prolonged court battle.

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Supreme Court Strikes Down Prohibition on “Offensive” Trademark Registration

On June 19, the Supreme Court ruled in Matal v. Tam that the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) could no longer deny trademark registrations for “marks that disparage the members of a racial or ethnic group.” Before this decision, the PTO used the Lanham Act’s Disparagement Clause as its legal basis for prohibiting protection for offensive names. The Court held, however, that the Disparagement Clause violated the First Amendment, reasoning that “Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

The Court’s decision has important ramifications for the NFL’s Washington Redskins and other sports teams with names and mascots that many consider to be offensive. The “Redskins” was considered racially offensive on several occasions by the PTO and was held to be ineligible for federal trademark registration. The Supreme Court’s decision allows for the Redskins name to receive the benefits of federal registration.

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Supreme Court Significantly Narrows Where Patent Cases May Be Brought

On May 22, the Supreme Court reversed a ruling from the Federal Circuit which allowed for patent infringement cases to be brought in any district where the defendant conducts business. Liquid sweetener brand TC Heartland was sued by Kraft Food Brands in Delaware, its state of incorporation, and unsuccessfully moved to transfer venue to the Southern District of Indiana, where it primarily conducts business.

The relevant patent venue statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1400(b), states that any patent infringement case may be brought in the district where the defendant resides or has a regular and established place of business. However, the 1957 Supreme Court decision in Fourco Glass Co. v. Transmirra Products Corp. provided a more narrow definition of “resides,” holding that “resides” refers only to the defendant’s state of incorporation. TC Heartland appealed to the Supreme Court to instead adopt the definition from the 1990 Federal Circuit case VE Holding Corp. v. Johnson Gas Appliance, which more broadly interpreted “resides” to include any venue in which a defendant conducts business.

In the 8-0 majority opinion written by Justice Thomas, the Court concluded that a domestic corporation “resides” only in its state of incorporation and thus a patent holder invoking § 1400(b) is limited to bring suit only in the defendant’s state of incorporation. The Court’s decision is a significant defeat for the many patent holders who hope to file in the Eastern District of Texas, which has become a popular forum for plaintiffs. As the majority of the defendants in these patent cases are not incorporated in the Eastern District of Texas, the VE Holding Corp. decision would likely cause many patent cases to transfer to Delaware, a common state of incorporation for domestic companies.