Nancy Chen is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD/MBA Candidate at the University of Toronto.
In a battle of the stripes, athletic fashion giant Adidas went head-to-head with American luxury fashion brand Thom Browne in a court case that tested the delicate balance between protecting a company’s branding and allowing for creativity and competition in the marketplace.
At the heart of the case was Adidas’ iconic three-stripe design, which the company claimed was being infringed upon by Thom Browne’s four-striped signature. The sportswear giant argued that the stripes were crucial to its brand identity and that Thom Browne’s use of similar stripes would dilute the distinctiveness of its trademark and cause confusion among consumers. If successful, Adidas sought $7.8 million in damages and profits earned by Browne’s use of the stripes. However, on January 12th 2023, a jury rejected Adidas’ allegations, finding no infringement or dilution.
The case can be traced back to 2005 when Browne debuted his “Three-Bar Signature” motif. This prompted Adidas to reach out to the designer in 2007, citing the similarity between the two brands’ designs. In response, Browne added another stripe to his design and launched his “Four-Bar Signature.” Adidas seemingly approved this design, as the sportswear giant stayed quiet for the next decade while Browne produced jackets, ties, socks and athletic wear bearing the Four-Bar Signature.
However, in 2018 Adidas approached Browne about his use of the stripes, claiming that they only became aware of the infringement at that time. Settlement negotiations began but ultimately fell through, and Adidas filed an initial complaint against Browne in 2021.
The proceedings of the case were extensive, with both sides presenting a large amount of evidence supporting their respective positions. Adidas presented evidence of the widespread use and recognition of their three-stripe design, and survey evidence suggesting that consumers were likely to be confused by the stripes used by Thom Browne.
Thom Browne, on the other hand, argued that the decade-long delay in bringing forth an allegation was unacceptable. Furthermore, the brands served different markets; Adidas is an affordable sportswear brand, whereas Thom Browne is a high-end luxury brand not centered around sportswear. “Adidas does not own stripes,” said Robert T. Maldonade, Browne’s attorney. The jury ultimately sided with Browne’s arguments.
The trial has set an important precedent in shaping the future of trademark protection and its impact on the fashion industry. The verdict showed that the legal system recognizes the potential for stifling creativity and competition if trademark protection is extended too far, emphasizing the need for a nuanced approach that balances the interests of trademark holders and the wider creative community. The EU decision in Adidas’ bid to extend its Three-Stripe trademark in 2019 further reinforced these limits, as the court ruled that the trademark lacked “distinctive character”. This underscores the importance of being cautious when granting trademark protection for non-distinctive marks to ensure that it does not infringe on the creativity and competitiveness of the marketplace.