On the AR blog, I have argued that fashion needs copyright law and even more legal protection beyond that; I have highlighted the numerous shortcomings of the law to protect intellectual property and the sometimes devastating results for designers. But despite these legal shortcomings, some fashion companies have nonetheless prevailed, protecting their brand, designs, and intellectual property.
One of these companies is undoubtedly Levi’s.
I had the privilege of hearing from Levi’s legal department at Fashion Law Institute conference in San Francisco, CA. The head of the legal department highlighted many ways that the legal team protects the brand and combats counterfeits. In this article, I am going to summarize what I took away as the top three protections for their brand: patents, trademarks and copyright, and brand maintenance.
Levis is credited with creating the first pair of denim jeans – a piece that we now consider a staple in any wardrobe was once a new and innovative idea.
And what is the best way to protect a new and innovative idea? Patents.
In the 1800s Levi’s took out patents to protect their denim jeans. The first patent protected the fastening of jean pockets by rivets to prevent ripping and the later waistband of the denim jeans. The words “Patented May 20 1873” was displayed on all early pairs of jeans to ensure the patent was known and used. This afforded Levi’s the exclusive right to produce and sell their jeans and prevented competitors from using their innovations and designs.
Trademarks and Copyright:
The jeans were originally created to be a durable pair of work pants, but over time transformed into an icon of American fashion and culture. Starting in 1966, with a move away from the functional and towards the fashionable, the legal protections shifted from patents to trademarks. Levi’s started sewing coloured tabs labeled Levi’s into the seam of the back pocket on all of their jeans. The tab was copyrighted and a patch explained the tab was a registered trademark created to identify garments made only by Levi Strauss & Co. This tab, and the trademarked stitching on the back pocket, helped protect Levi’s jeans from counterfeiters and helped the company build their brand’s national recognition.
Last week on the AR Blog, Patrick Smith wrote on the importance of maintaining a mark to ensure it does not become a common place term like “Kleenex” or “trampoline”, and that is exactly what Levi’s does.
All Levi’s employees are given a manual called “Our Trade Marks and How to Use Them”. This manual explains all the registered marks Levi’s has and what to do about counterfeit jeans they may come across.
Importantly the manual instructs employees never to refer to jeans simply as “Levi’s” but to always specify “Levi’s Jeans”. The brand is aware of the risk that their brand could become a common place term and works hard to maintain their trademarks just as Patrick explained.
So, although it is true that for now fashion has less inherent intellectual property protection compared to other industry sectors, much can be learned from Levi’s proactive history of brand protection. From patents to trademarks and copyright, the company continuously works to maintain its product and brand positioning as the one and only original pair of American jeans.
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