Not all stripes are Adidas stripes, a blow the renowned Sportswear company, Adidas, was dealt after it lost the trademark infringement lawsuit it filed against American luxury designer Thom Browne in 2021. Adidas claimed that Thom Browne’s signature 4-striped branding for his eponymous brand, imitated its “inimitable” three-striped emblem. Although the companies do not seemingly read as competitors with the companies existing in two completely different markets – the former in sports and the latter, luxury fashion, Adidas argued that Thom Browne’s use of stripes, particularly in its newer sportswear collection, would cause the public to confuse the designs for Adidas products.
This is not the first time the companies have clashed over trademark issues. Adidas had previously reached out to Thom Browne when the designer used a three-stripe design on its jackets. Browne responded by adding a fourth stripe to avoid clashing with Adidas.
Adidas unfortunately lost its trademark infringement case against Thom Browne, on the 12th of January 2023, when a New York Jury, rejected the accusation. The decision in this case raises a trademark question: “Who owns stripes?”
The three stripes brand, and in fact branded stripes in general, is easily associated with the Adidas brand, as it has certainly gained recognition in the fashion/sportswear industry. Adidas was granted trademark protection for its logo in 2014, specifically for “three slanted stripes or quadrilaterals, equidistant from and parallel to one another, used on any product”. Nonetheless, the three-striped giant believes that its intellectual property right, extends to the common 2 and 4 striped logo, used by other designers.
Adidas has previously accused other brands or designers of infringing on its trademark rights. The sportswear company is well-known for suing companies or that use 2 or 4 distinct stripes in their designs. However, this is its first loss. For the avoidance of doubt – this does not mean that Adidas has lost its trademark in its 3-striped logo. It, however, inevitably raises concern for the popular brand and some uncertainty around trademark infringements matters.
In March 2023, the sportswear giant remained relentless as it proposed in a notice of opposition submitted to the US trademark office, that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Global Network Foundation’s yellow-stripe trademark resembles its own popular three-stripe mark that it is “likely to cause confusion”. Although Adidas retracted this trademark objection, it could still challenge the trademark on the same grounds in future. Ultimately, the question regarding the ‘ownership of stripes’, still stands.
A trademark infringement claim can be maintained if it is established that a protected work or material, which is the subject of the dispute, is copied, and the plaintiff is the legitimate owner of work. In the Adidas v Browne case, Browne’s lawyers successfully argued that stripes are a common design, and that the parties are involved in capturing distinct consumer bases.
This case raises concerns regarding the distinctiveness of a brand’s logo, the test for determining similarities in logo designs, and ways to avoid chances of trademark infringement. This is especially because, it is evident in this particular case that the logos of both brands are somewhat similar and there is an overlap between the products offered by both brands, with Adidas seemingly being justified in its claim and yet the finding was in Browne’s favour.
When the supposed target audience encounters your product, they should be able to identify your brand, thus differentiating it from any other trademark and this singular interaction is the essence of trademark law. The effect of the court’s decision is that any person could decide to establish their brand by adding a fifth stripe to their logo. Should this happen, considering the ruling discussed, who would have grounds for a trademark infringement claim – Adidas, Thom Browne or, interestingly, no one?
“Adidas does not own stripes,’’ said one of Browne’s lawyers during the court case and the US court agrees – as at today at least. To that end, here is some helpful advice that may assist upcoming designers.
Three ways to avoid trademark infringements:
- Ensure that your brand logo or content is distinctive enough to prevent possible imitations;
- Register your brand to protect brand identity theft; and most importantly
- Pay close attention to rule number 1 & 2.
For more information on our Intellectual Property Desk, kindly reach out to our team of lawyers at Centurion Law Group:
Oneyka Cindy Ojogbo-Oneyka.firstname.lastname@example.org
Timilehin Elizabeth Owolabi- Elizabeth.email@example.com
Author: Elizabeth Oluwatimilehin Owolabi, Junior associate at Centurion Law Group