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They Worthy of Trademark Protection

They Worthy of Trademark Protection

Virgil Abloh's Off-White Logos Are Everywhere But Are They Worthy of Trademark Protection?
It is difficult to deny the sheer force that has catapulted Off-White to the forefront of the minds of young, hip, fashion-focused consumers. Much has been made of Virgil Abloh, the mastermind behind the Milan-based brand, in the press since he launched Off-White in 2014 after garnering fans with his (now-defunct) streetwear brand, Pyrex Vision. There is no shortage of lengthy articles devoted to both ventures, and to Abloh, himself, particularly given his ability to step out of the shadow of cousin and mentor Kanye West, and thrive in ways that West has been unable to – namely, in designing fashion.
Our focus is not on the rise of the Off-White brand, though, or on Abloh’s footprint in the worlds of streetwear and high fashion. It is, instead, on Abloh’s use of existing graphics to build a brand that resonates with consumers, and whether he will be able to rely on trademark protection in connection with those very graphics.
Abloh’s most noteworthy offering comes in the form of his brand’s logo – the diagonal line motif that is not in any way exclusive to Off-White. It is the graphic you find on cross-walks and on road signs – and have found there for many decades now, certainly long before Off-White’s inception. As a brand builder, Abloh did something very interesting here. Instead of utilizing a distinctive brand-identifying logo, which is what the vast majority of brands tend to do (save for maybe Target with its bull’s eye logo or Rolex with its stylized crown), he chose one that is completely unoriginal.
The co-opting of a nearly universal design for use on t-shirts, sweatshirts, trousers, jackets, shoes, and bags comes with significant benefits and drawbacks. On the upside, Abloh has been able to piggyback off of an extremely common and well known design. “Off-White’s designs—brash and loud and graphic, branded with black-and-white diagonal stripes you can recognize from 30 yards away—are everywhere,” Zach Baron wrote for GQ.
Writing for Complex, Cameron Wolf put the power behind this move best: “Even if the general population doesn't recognize those diagonal stripes as Abloh’s, if his followers do, then he’s succeeded. Imagine hundreds of thousands of Off-White fans seeing diagonal lines all the time and automatically thinking of Abloh’s label. That’s extremely powerful because it can make the brand seem larger than it actually is.”
In this way, Abloh has put the street to work for him – sometimes very literally – in creating brand awareness in lieu of having to spend on traditional forms of advertising, such as pricey campaigns or particularly over-the-top runway shows.
The less advantageous element of this equation stems from the chance that Abloh will be unable to solidify a connection in the minds of consumers between the diagonal stripe design and his brand’s goods because the logo is based on a largely generic design. With this in mind, Abloh may experience a potential inability to obtain trademark rights in his logo – and thereby prevent others from using it in connection with their own brands in a way that is confusing to consumers, which is one of the benefits of trademark protection.
The legally-minded amongst us know that in order to receive federal trademark protection, the mark at issue must be distinctive – either inherently or as a result of creating a connection (or “secondary meaning”) in the minds of consumers between the trademark and the brand at issue, a phenomenon known as acquired distinctiveness. In other words, the trademark must be capable of identifying the source of a particular product.
“The name of the game in trademarks is distinctiveness. Basically, the marching orders at the Trademark Office are that, with very few exceptions, distinctive marks [either inherently distinctive ones or those that have acquired distinctiveness] will be registered. So, if your mark distinguishes your stuff from similar stuff made by others, then it may very well be a good candidate for registration,” says Ed Timberlake, a board certified Trademark Law Specialist and former Trademark Examining Attorney at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”). In short, the mark “should be different from what others are doing in and around your market space.”
Luckily for us, whether or not Abloh’s diagonal line logos are worthy of trademark protection will not be a mystery for very long. As of this past July, Abloh filed trademark applications for registration for a few variations of his Off-White brand’s logos.
For the uninitiated, it is worth noting that the filing of trademark applications does not guarantee that the trademarks will be registered with the USPTO and thus, granted federal trademark protection. As such, the question – or better yet, one of the questions – is “whether the symbols are being used in connection with this stuff in such a way that people will make the connection between the symbols and this stuff so as to understand that any of these particular symbol-stuff combinations come from this particular source,” says Timberlake.
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