Fashion faux pas: Logos as art or trademark

Fordham University's Fashion Law Institute in Crain's New York Business, February 11, 2013

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 How does a fashion logo, like Ralph Lauren's polo player or Chanel's interlocked Cs, move from art to trademark infringement? That's the main question posed at a seminar held Friday by Fordham University's Fashion Law Institute for New York Fashion Week.

Intellectual property lawyers and retail experts spoke about this fashion industry issue, which is growing urgent thanks to the increasing popularity of using logos on tattoos, websites and graffiti. Yet, many high-end brands have different solutions.

"We get request of all sorts on a daily basis to use our brand on a birthday cake, or a motorcycle or a tattoo," said Anna Dalla Val, senior director of intellectual property and enforcement at Ralph Lauren, adding that there are instances where infringers have taken a picture of a Ralph Lauren sweatshirt, for example, and turned the photo into an iPhone cover to sell on the Internet. "But we need to consider that it is sometimes not just trademarks, but a public relations issue where ignoring it could be the best solution," she said.

Ralph Lauren spends more time monitoring counterfeit products that are sold for profit, than on artistic items that have possibly infringed on its trademark, Ms. Dalla Val noted.

While Ralph Lauren picks and chooses its battles, luxury label Louis Vuitton is famous for its zero-tolerance policy on any unauthorized use of its LV logo. Michael Pantalony, a brand consultant and intellectual property attorney who formerly worked for the company on trademark infringement lawsuits, said he was involved in numerous disputes on copied LV items, from dog toys to condoms.

"It's death by a thousand cuts," he said. "If you don't protect your rights, they will slowly whittle away."

Some street artists, such as the French artist Zevs, have made artistic pieces out of logos, including Louis Vuitton and Chanel marks, that have been altered to appear as though they are dripping. Zevs' pieces symbolize the instability of the wealth of society and aren't trademark infringement, argued David de Buck, founder of De Buck Gallery, which showcases Zevs' work.

Such pieces "are a critique on the role these brands have on society," said Mr. de Buck, who noted that he represents the "bad boys" street artists. He took an alternative view, noting that if a street artist uses a brand's trademark, such increased exposure could only bolster the label's presence with a new youth market and possibly even increase sales.

But one apparel brand actually encourages trademark usage by fans. Hip-hop label Marc Ecko offers discounts to anyone that inks a tattoo of its logo onto his or her flesh. Shoppers with such a tattoo—logos are downloadable from the company's website for this specific purpose—receive 20% off at any Marc Ecko store for life.

"Some brands love it," said Marisa Kakoulas, editor-in-chief of tattoo commentary site NeedlesandSins.com. She noted that in its 2010 show, Chanel models wore temporary tattoos featuring the brand's logo.