Samantha Sharf | Battling brand management bullies
Elements of Style | Penn could set a new precedent through their fight with Louis Vuitton
March 13, 2012, 10:25 pm·
Elements of Style
Louis Vuitton’s brown and tan leather motif is not a stranger to Penn’s campus. It makes appearances on wallets, key chains and the occasional handbag.
Recently, however, a few Penn Law students caught the fashion house’s attention not as potential customers but as legal opponents. Penn Law Dean Michael Fitts received a cease and desist letter, not because his students were carrying knockoffs (with LV wallets ranging from $350 to over $800, who would blame them?) but because they used elements of the company’s trademarked logo in a design of their own.
To promote an upcoming symposium on fashion law, The Penn Intellectual Property Group created a modified version of LV’s famous “LV’s famous “toile monogram.” These crafty future lawyers replaced the company’s interlocking LVs with interlocking TMs and occasionally placed a “©” among rows of four-leafed flowers.
Louis Vuitton was not pleased with the revisions and wrote to Fitts. In the letter, a lawyer representing the company described PIPG’s modification as an “egregious action” and declared it “not only a serious willful infringement” that “knowingly dilutes the LV Trademarks, but also may mislead others into thinking that this type of unlawful activity is somehow ‘legal’ or constitutes ‘fair use’ because the Penn Intellectual Property Group is sponsoring a seminar on fashion law and must be experts.”
Penn’s counsel responded with a letter United States law, “expressly protects a noncommercial use of a mark and a parody from any claim for dilution.” In other words, because PIPG did not intend to use the offending posters or invitations for monetary gain, they are in the clear. And, perhaps more significantly, the whole thing is clear satire, meant to address the very questions it has become intertwined with.
The fifth annual symposium will take place next Tuesday night. The evening will include two panels and a keynote speech on copyright and trademark featuring experts in law, fashion and where the two fields intersect.
Most of the bloggers who have weighed in on the controversy paint LV as a big bully and the students’ design as a clear and clever parody. I agree with the consensus and am even tempted to write off the whole ordeal as silly.
But beneath the catty surface, there is more to this case than meets the eye. It gains complexity when we look at Louis Vuitton’s lengthy history of making such claims.
In May 2010, the Kobe Fashion Museum in Kobe, Japan, removed nine small bug-shaped sculptures from an exhibition because they were made from knockoff handbags. The sculptures were constructed with Gucci, Fendi, Coach and Chanel knockoffs as well as five LV designs. Artist Mitsuhiro Okamoto named the works “Batta Mon,” referencing the Japanese word for locust and slang for knockoff — in order to draw a comparison between the natural and the inauthentic.
Apparently Louis Vuitton did not appreciate the artist’s message. They sent a letter to the museum, criticizing the gallery for displaying counterfeit work. Not wanting to fight the legal battle, the museum complied.
In 2008 Danish artist Nadia Plesner designed a T-shirt to raise money for children in the Darfur region of Sudan. Her design featured a naked and malnourished child holding a sweater-clad Chihuahua and a large purse that looked a lot like a Louis Vuitton (think Paris Hilton).
In a letter responding to Louis Vuitton’s cease and desist request, she wrote, “sometimes recognizable objects are needed to express deeper meanings, and in their new form they become more than the objects themselves — they become art.”
As with the sculptures in Japan, the trademark protectors at LV did not care how compelling the message was and went after Plesner just the same. The artist fought back but eventually had to give in because of legal costs.
Louis Vuitton has a right to protect their brand from those who manufacture and sell knockoff goods, but it should not treat every organization that uses their image as their enemy. I commend Penn for defending the students’ design. As an organization with greater means than most, this fight could set a precedent for dealing with brand management bullies.
Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.