By Tanya Silverman
Christian Louboutin shoes. Photo courtesy of Patricia Figueira.
Drawing lines with trademarks can be tricky. If people produce an original idea, they will often go to great lengths to protect it and earn the credit. Certain concepts that go up for trademark are original and innovative, but others can be unspecific generalities. Determining how something is to be lawfully owned by an entity or exist as free public property has become a major focus in the current world.
According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a trademark is a “brand name” that “includes any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods/services of one seller or provider from those of others, and to indicate the source of the goods/services.” Registering a trademark entitles people or companies to presume its ownership nationwide, and retain the exclusive right to use it “on or in connection with the goods/services listed in the registration.”
That explanation is subject to infinite interpretations, such as the goods and services connected to the trademark, or what words or names can actually merit the trademark in the beginning. Examining several recent court cases is a way to investigate how open-ended the definition of trademarked material can be. From high-fashion footwear to Christmas dinners at British pubs to listing the best bars in a given city, it is difficult to determine how far such trademark protection will go.
In honor of Bullshit Week on BTR, here are a few of the most ridiculous cases in the history of trademark disputes.
Christian Louboutin’s Red Heels
A court ruling in September 2012 decided that fashion designer Christian Louboutin reserved the exclusive right to manufacture women’s high heeled shoes with red outsoles (the bottom part of the shoe). This trademark does not apply to fully-red shoes, but only to those that have a contrasting color that makes up the rest of the shoe.
According to the court ruling, this trademark clearly identifies the Louboutin design.
The patent over the red outsole on high heels is a huge win for Louboutin, as the company registered the red lacquered outsole as its own property in 2008. It was also a victory for those who have achieved high-fashion status. Victor Marrero of the Federal District Court pointed out that when women, specifically Hollywood stars and fashion icons, wore the Louboutin red outsoles, it distinguished them as “those in the know.”
Women like Lady Gaga, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow all supported Louboutin’s trademark. Perhaps it is necessary to defend such trademarks, as wearing red outsoles separates the esteemed celebrities and fashion-forward crowd from the remainder of citizens.
The Litigious Monster
A notorious trademark-war beast, Monster Cable Products, Inc., seems to go after anything and everything that even resembles the word “monster.” This California company which produces audio, video and computer cables has fought against not only giants like Disney and Pixar for daring to title their children’s movie, Monsters, Inc. but even has gone after Monster Mini-Golf, a mom-and-pop putt-putt chain, and Monster Vintage, a small business in Oregon that sells all-American retro clothing.
It is unlikely that most people would associate computer cables with their mini-golf or vintage fashion, but Monster Cable Products believes that these other businesses infringe on their rights in connection to their trademarked goods and services. The monstrous list goes on to the Discovery Channel’s show, “Monster Garage”, and career website Monster.com. Such behavior has gotten Monster Cable Products, Inc. some bad press for being so over-protective over a seemingly generic title. Even while Monster Cable Products retains its ever-extensive list of trademarks, it is easy for people to make fun of this company, wondering who they will go after next, whether it’s the Monster Mash dance or the Loch Ness Monster.
KFC vs. the Tan Hill
At times, trademark battles make their way to the people and places that least expect them. For instance, they could swim across the Atlantic Ocean and creep all the way up a 1,732 foot hill to Britain’s tallest inn, the Tan Hill. In 2007, this small North Yorkshire inn was accused of infringing on trademarked property. After they composed their list of Christmas dinner options, Kentucky Fried Chicken sent a cease and desist order demanding the Tan Hill to remove the words “family feast” from the menu.
Owner Tracy Daly thought it was a joke, but KFC was serious. KFC apparently believed that their fast-food combination of fried chicken, fries, potato and gravy, coleslaw and soda was being threatened by the pub’s roast turkey, Guinness-stilton pate and Christmas pudding. KFC eventually backed down. Daly’s thoughts were that “common sense had prevailed” as the meals barely resemble each other, and also that she is simply “a little lady up a mountain.”
Getting the “Best of” the Village Voice
The Village Voice dominates the term of “Best of” to describe a city. The Village Voice Media Holdings’ papers release an annual issue that identifies the best shopping, bars, entertainment, eateries, etc. in places like San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Miami and St. Louis. Last year, the popular local directory service Yelp got pushed out of using the phrase “Best of” to describe city attractions. According to the lawsuit, when Yelp published lists like “BEST OF HOUSTON” and “BEST OF MIAMI”, these were “likely to cause confusion, mistake and deception of consumers as to the source of Yelp’s goods and services in light of VVMH’s Registered Marks.”
From then on, Yelp is only able to classify the best places of these cities under “Best of Yelp: [City Name].” Earlier in the year, VVMH also succeeded in getting Time Out New York to stop its annual “Best of NYC” Issue.
The practice of implementing trademarks can be beneficial to protect ideas and property. It could also be stifling to the creative abilities of others. The concept of trademarks can be considered through philosophical examination, or in actuality through a case-by-case basis of specific legal episodes. Yet regardless of how logical or illogical one views them, these kinds of trademark concepts and cases are a reality of our legal system that won’t disappear any time soon.