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Shoes, Shoes, and More Shoes: The Battle over Intellectual Property Protection for Shoe Designs Wages on After Louboutin v. YSL

By Melissa B. Berger

Although not receiving nearly as much publicity as the fight between Christian Louboutin and Yves Saint Laurent over red soled shoes, numerous other federal lawsuits continue to be filed regarding the degree of intellectual property protection that should be afforded to shoes and their design elements. This blog summarizes a sampling of those cases filed during September and October of 2013.

Converse, Inc. v. Autonomie Project, Inc.

On September 9, 2013, Converse, Inc. (Converse) filed a Complaint in the District of Massachusetts against Autonomie Project, Inc. (Autonomie) (Case No. 13-cv-12220), alleging federal trademark infringement, false designation of origin, unfair competition, and dilution, as well as common law trademark infringement, unfair competition, and dilution, and unfair business practices under Massachusetts law.

Prior to initiating this lawsuit, Converse sent a cease and desist letter to Autonomie. Having not received its requested response, Converse now maintains that it has common law and federal trademark rights in various aspects of the trade dress used in connection with the "Chuck Taylor All Star" shoes, "including but not limited to the design of two stripes on a midsole, the design of a toe cap, the design of a multi-layered toe bumper featuring diamonds and line patterns, and the relative position of these elements to each other," covered by four federal trademark registrations.

Converse alleges that, since 1917, it has sold over one billion pairs of shoes bearing this aforementioned trade dress, which "has become a famous and well-known indicator of the origin and quality of Converse footwear." Converse also emphasizes that its trade dress is "the subject of widespread and unsolicited public attention," including "acclaim in books, magazines, and newspapers" and "frequent appearances in movies and television shows." For instance, Converse cites to books that describe its trade dress "as an icon of American footwear and the most famous athletic shoe in history." Converse therefore alleges that its trade dress has acquired both fame and secondary meaning and that it has "a distinctive appearance using unique and non-functional designs."

Converse alleges that Autonomie, without any authorization from Converse, has been selling, and continues to sell, footwear bearing design elements that are confusingly similar to Converse's trade dress. Converse alleges that, on its website, Autonomie even makes numerous comments acknowledging that its products are very similar in appearance and style to Converse shoes, and even more specifically to the Chuck Taylor All Star shoe. Converse has consequently alleged that Autonomie's infringement is "intentional, willful, and malicious."

Converse asserts that Autonomie's activities are likely to cause consumer confusion and have caused, and will continue to cause, Converse substantial and irreparable injury to its goodwill and reputation. As relief, Converse seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction enjoining Autonomie's alleged activities, an order requiring the destruction of all products and materials related to the alleged infringing products, as well as an award of Autonomie's profits, actual damages, enhanced profits and damages, attorneys' fees and costs, and even punitive damages. Autonomie did respond to Converse's Complaint, which Answer was due on October 30th.

Tommy Hilfinger U.S.A., Inc. and Tommy Hilfiger Licensing LLC v. Jumbo Bright Trading Limited

Just two days after the Converse suit was filed, on September 11th, Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A., Inc. and Tommy Hilfiger Licensing LLC (together, Tommy Hilfiger) filed a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment in the Southern District of New York against Jumbo Bright Trading Limited (Jumbo Bright), which distributes Charles Philip brand footwear. This filing was in response to a number of cease and desist letters that Tommy Hilfiger received from Jumbo Bright regarding its use of a vertical stripe pattern, known as the "Ithaca Stripe," on the inside of its shoes (Case No. 13-cv-06386). Jumbo Bright asserted, in those letters, that it owns common law trademark rights to what Tommy Hilfiger describes as a "vertical stripe pattern used on the interior lining of its footwear, along with three vertical stripes on the shoe rim near the heel" and that Tommy Hilfiger's use of its vertical stripe pattern infringes upon those common law trademark rights.

As a result, Tommy Hilfiger is seeking a declaration from the court that Jumbo Bright's stripe pattern does not function as a trademark because it is merely ornamental, is aesthetically functional, and lacks secondary meaning. Tommy Hilfiger asserts that Jumbo Bright cannot own common law rights in said stripe pattern, as it is merely decorative, fails to serve as a source indicator or to distinguish Jumbo Bright's goods from those of others, and furthermore, that granting any trademark rights in such a design would hinder fair competition within the footwear industry.

Tommy Hilfiger supports its claims by emphasizing that Jumbo Bright previously filed two applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to try to protect its vertical stripe pattern, both of which were rejected as lacking inherent and acquired distinctiveness and as being merely ornamental or decorative in nature and therefore failing to function as a trademark. Furthermore, despite Jumbo Bright's attempts to overcome these initial refusals, the USPTO maintained its rejections, to which, it appears, Jumbo Bright did not respond. Both of these applications have since been deemed abandoned by the USPTO.

Tommy Hilfiger further claims that, even if Jumbo Bright's stripe pattern was entitled to trademark protection, Tommy Hilfiger has prior use of its "Ithaca Stripe" pattern over Jumbo Bright's usage. Tommy Hilfiger therefore seeks declaratory judgment that its use of the "Ithaca Stripe" pattern does not constitute trademark or trade dress infringement, is not likely to cause any consumer confusion as to source, and does not constitute false designation of origin or unfair competition. Jumbo Bright appears to have executed a waiver of service and its Answer is therefore due on November 12th.

AirWair International Ltd., v. Cels Enterprises, Inc. d/b/a Chinese Laundry

A week after the Tommy Hilfiger suit was filed, on September 18, 2013, AirWair International Ltd., the producer of Dr. Martens footwear (AirWair), brought a suit very similar to Converse, against Cels Enterprises, Inc. d/b/a Chinese Laundry (Cels) in the Northern District of California (Case No. 13-cv-04312). AirWair is alleging federal trademark infringement, false designation of origin, and dilution, as well as California Statutory unfair competition and dilution, and common law unfair competition, in connection with Dr. Marten's registered trade dress, featuring "yellow stitching in the welt area of the sole and a two-tone grooved sole edge," as well as "a distinctive undersole design consisting of a unique horizontal grid pattern." AirWair claims ownership of five trademark registrations covering its trade dress, all of which, it states, have been in use in the United States since 1984.

AirWair asserts that its trade dress has acquired distinctiveness, is non-functional, and is world famous, that Dr. Martens has become one of "the world's greatest and most recognizable brands," and that its boots and shoes are "iconic." AirWair alleges that Cels is selling, under its Chinese Laundry brand, footwear that is confusingly similar to and contains trade dress that is "substantially indistinguishable" from, or "substantially identical to," AirWair's registered trade dress. AirWair also alleges that Cels' copying and infringement is done with knowledge, is deliberate, constitutes unfair competition and an attempt to trade upon Dr. Martens' popularity and reputation, and constitutes a false designation of origin. AirWair further alleges that it has suffered and will continue to suffer reputational damage, as well as lost sales and profits, as a result of Cels' alleged unlawful activities. AirWair further states that Cels has been unjustly enriched by its "unlawful use and imitation of AirWair's registered Trade Dress" and that Cels' actions are likely to "dilute, blur and tarnish the distinctive quality" of that trade dress and to "lessen the capacity of AirWair's marks to identify and distinguish the company's products."

AirWair is therefore seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction of Cels' alleged unlawful activities, as well as an Order requiring Cels to either destroy, or turn over to AirWair, any and all products containing the infringing trade dress, means of making such products, packaging, marketing materials, and any other goods related to its alleged unlawful activities. AirWair has also requested an accounting of Cels' profits arising from its alleged unlawful activities, an award of either actual damages sustained by AirWair or statutory damages, an award of treble damages, pre- and post-judgment interest on all damages awarded, as well as attorney's fees and costs. As of October 29th, the docket did not reflect that a Summons has been returned executed or, consequently, that an Answer has been filed.

Skechers U.S.A., Inc. and Skechers U.S.A., Inc. II v, Shoe Confession LLC, Perry Ellis International, Inc., PEI Licensing Inc., and other Doe defendants

Yet another Complaint, this time alleging design patent infringement, in addition to trade dress infringement and unfair competition, was filed on October 11, 2013, by Skechers U.S.A., Inc. and Skechers U.S.A., Inc. II ("Sketchers") against Shoe Confession LLC, Perry Ellis International, Inc., PEI Licensing Inc., and other Doe defendants (collectively, the "Perry Ellis Defendants") in the Central District of California (Case No. 13-cv-07573).

This suit concerns Skechers' shoe entitled the "Skechers Go Run." Sketchers alleges ownership of "exclusive and protectable trade dress rights" in what it terms a "sole bottom trade dress" and an "outsole periphery trade dress" for its Skechers Go Run shoe, which Skechers asserts has acquired distinctiveness and has "an ornamental configuration that uniquely identifies the shoe as emanating from a single source, Skechers." Skechers is alleging that the Perry Ellis defendants' "Pro Player Phaze 2M" shoe infringes its trade dress by using the same repeating cleat and nub patterns used by Skechers, which "deceive[s] consumers into buying defendants' shoes in the mistaken belief that defendants' shoes emanate from Skechers and are genuine Skechers shoes."

Skechers also alleges willful infringement of each of its four U.S. design patents covering various ornamental features of the sole bottom and outsole periphery of its Skechers Go Run shoe. Skechers states that the USPTO, in issuing these patents, has acknowledged that Skechers' designs are "novel, nonobvious, and ornamental." Skechers states that the Pro Player Phaze 2M shoes "embody the patented invention[s] disclosed in" Sketchers' patents and that the shoe so closely resembles the inventions disclosed in its four patents that "an ordinary observer would be deceived into purchasing the Pro Player Phaze 2M shoe in the mistaken belief that it includes the invention[s] disclosed in" those patents.

Skechers' Complaint also includes a claim that "Defendants are willfully, fraudulently, oppressively, maliciously and unlawfully attempting to pass off, and are passing off, their infringing footwear as those approved and/or authorized by Skechers," a violation of common law unfair competition, which Skechers alleges has resulted in irreparable injury to its business reputation. As a result, Skechers seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions enjoining the Perry Ellis defendants from engaging in the alleged activities and an order directing the destruction of all goods and "instrumentalities used in the production" of such goods, as well as a recall of any and all goods and materials infringing any of the Skechers patents. Skechers further seeks treble damages, plus interest, for each claim of trade dress and patent infringement, as well as the Perry Ellis defendants' profits from any sales of the alleged infringing footwear, punitive damages, restitution, and attorneys' fees and costs. As of October 29th, no Answer had been filed in this case.

In conclusion, as all of these cases make clear, the controversy regarding the proper level of intellectual property protection that should be afforded to shoe design is still alive and kicking in the courts in the wake of Louboutin v. YSL.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 21, 2013 11:09 AM.

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