You remember the circular patch with the star, the canvas, the white rubber, the white stitching? They're Chuck Taylors, right? Except when they're not -- and that's the problem. Nike, which owns Converse, is suing companies like Walmart, Kmart, and Sketchers, alleging infringement on the trademarks it claims in Converse's iconic Chuck Taylor All Star shoes.
How bad could it be? The Huffington Post provided screen shots of Walmart and H&M websites selling "sneakers" or "canvas lace" shoes that look eerily (maybe illegally) similar to Chucks. In all, 31 companies are being accused of trademark infringement in the United States and globally in a separate complaint with the International Trade Commission.
The hallmark of a trademark infringement claim like this -- which is really a trade dress claim -- is that reasonable consumers would be fooled into thinking the knock-off Chucks are the real deal. Reasonable consumers in this case could probably be excused for thinking so, because the imitations really do look like genuine Chucks.
And that's the point. Converse charges a premium, partially for the Chuck Taylor look. You want all your friends to know you've got Chuck Taylors? Well, then, you're going to have to pay for it. Companies like Walmart and H&M are allegedly undermining the value that Converse has built in its brand.
Nike appears to be at the end of its rope: It wants monetary damages, but it also wants to stop the sale of fake Chucks. It's been trying: The Wall Street Journal reported that Nike has served about 180 cease-and-desist letters since 2008, but the problem persists.
It's Only Stealing If You're Caught
These days, it's usually been small designers who have had their designs stolen by large corporations, and they've usually lost. Part of the problem is that trade dress is protectable by statute only if it's distinctive -- meaning, consumers associate a particular design with a particular company or designer. For the small-time designer just starting up, no one knows who she is. So when designers from Urban Outfitters swoop into a Brooklyn flea market, then start producing a line of jewelry suspiciously similar to jewelry being sold at the flea market, there's little recourse.
Nike, though, is no pushover. It's the most valuable sports brand of 2014, says Forbes, and has a market cap of $65 billion. It's not going anywhere. And this isn't the first time shoes have been involved in a trade dress dispute: Back in 2011, Christian Louboutin sued Yves Saint Laurent for infringing on the design of its red-soled shoes, which Louboutin claimed were unique. A judge agreed. The more iconic the design, and the more people associate it with a particular brand, the better the outcome. Who among us doesn't recognize the distinctive design of Chuck Taylors?