Originally posted 2014-06-23 11:00:26.
By Ozelle Martin | amdlawgroup.com
Lately, there seems to be a sudden burst in the number of print t-shirt lines that bear designs that are strikingly similar to those of well-known luxury brands such as Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Givenchy. Undoubtedly, these print t-shirt creators have ventured such a path, in an effort to appeal to the audiences of these very brands to whom they have become parasitic. With ammunition, in the form of potent legal departments, in tow- many of these brands are shooting off cease and desist letters like paintballs. Very often, their claim is that the printed t-shirt creators are infringing upon their marks. In response, the printed t-shirt creators raise their shields and assert that their inspired designs are mere parodies, a defense borrowed from copyright law’s fair use doctrine.
Here’s an example: a t-shirt line creator may design and sell a shirt using Chanel’s interlocked double Cs. However, instead of using the word mark “Chanel” they may use another term in the “C” family. The most prominent legal issue birthed from such instances is whether the use of the interlocked double Cs typically associated with Chanel’s trademark constitutes infringement when used to represent another word or phrase.
The principle of trademark infringement rests on the standard of whether there will be a likelihood of confusion as to the source of the product. Courts will therefore invite themselves into the psyche of consumers to determine whether the consumers mistakenly believed that Chanel created the t-shirt in question.
It is important to note that there is no easy way to predict the outcome of a court’s decision, as there are many variables in involved. However, one cannot help but think that consumers may gravitate to a t-shirt bearing Chanel’s interlocked double Cs because they are attracted to the deluxe Chanel brand. Nevertheless, that is for the courts to decide based on the facts of the case.
Parody as a term of legal significance refers to the creation of new transformative works inspired by an underlying original work. Typically, the new work criticizes or comments on the original work. However, there are instances where no criticism or commentary exists and this is where courts may take an even harder look to determine if the new work infringed upon the original.
Luxury brands such as Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy are usually muscled with powerful attorneys and, therefore, using elements of their trademarks is like playing with fire- you have to be extremely cautious or you will be burnt. The best way to remove any uncertainty may be to just avoid it all together. These major brands are policing their marks heavily and small t-shirt designers hardly ever come out successful in such cases.