Louis Vuitton is one of the world’s most powerful brands and estimated to be worth a staggering $19 billion. It is also one of the most copied brands in the world. Ironically, the signature monogram canvas was created to prevent counterfeiting, yet Louis Vuitton fakes account for approximately 18% of counterfeit accessories seized in the European Union. It’s no surprise that Louis Vuitton is vigorous in protecting its brand, and is reported to allocate half of its entire communications budget to counteract counterfeiting. But is Louis Vuitton going a little too far with its efforts? Have they got a little bit paranoid? In recent years the brand has been involved with a number of high profile and, dare we say, some rather bizarre legal adventures.
In 2012 Louis Vuitton filed a suit against Warner Brothers’ studio for using a counterfeit handbag in its smash hit movie “The Hangover: Part II”. The case stemmed from a scene in which the character Alan Garner, played by Zach Galifianakis, is shown in an airport with a bag that looks a Louis Vuitton bag, but which is in fact a fake. In the scene, Galifianakis quips, “Be careful, that is … that is a Lewis Vuitton!” when someone knocks into his luggage.
Louis Vuitton claimed that Warner Brothers had infringed its trademark and confused the public because the bag featured in the movie was NOT a real Louis Vuitton. Luckily for Warner Brothers, the judge had a better sense of humor than the lawyers at Louis Vuitton and ruled that there was no trademark dilution and that the use of the bag, in conjunction with the joke made by Zach’s character, was an artistic expression protected by the 1st Amendment. The court concludes that Louis Vuitton’s allegations of confusion are not plausible, let alone “particularly compelling”, the judge wrote in summary.
In 2008 Louis Vuitton sued 26 year old artist Nadia Plesner for using a LV look-alike handbag on a t-shirt she designed to call attention to tragedies in Darfur. All the proceeds were to be donated to the charity “Divest for Darfur”. The image depicted a small child from Darfur carrying a LV lookalike bag.
“Since doing nothing but wearing designer bags and small ugly dogs is enough to get you on a magazine cover, maybe it is worth a try for people who actually deserve and need attention”, said the artist on her website. When Louis Vuitton heard about the campaign they sent Plesner a cease and desist letter. When she refused to stop using the images a court ruled in favour of LV that the image was a clear infringement of copyright. Despite the ruling, Plesner continued to use the image, arguing artistic freedom, and posted copies of the cease and desist order on her website.
Louis Vuitton was less than pleased when Britney Spears rolled around in a pink Hummer with an LV-patterned dashboard in the “Do Something” video (she’s all class that Brittany). The spokesperson for LV stated “we don’t make dashboards”. LV subsequently sued Sony and MTV Online in a French tribunal alleging copyright infringement, and this time they won. LVMH was awarded 80,000 Euros in damages and the right to have the Britney video banned.
In 2010 Louis Vuitton filed a lawsuit against the Korean Automobile manufacturer Hyundai for using what appeared to be a Louis Vuitton trademarked logo in a Superbowl commercial. The commercial briefly displayed an LV Monogram basketball being tossed around in a game. Louis Vuitton claim that the automaker tried “to benefit commercially from the fame and renown of the LVM Marks by creating a false association between Louis Vuitton and its automobiles.” The courts agreed and Louis Vuitton secured a summary judgment for trademark infringement against Hyundai in July 2012.
In 2012 Louis Vuitton threatened the University of Pennsylvania Law School with legal action after a student group parodied the LV monogram on a poster for a fashion law symposium.
“This egregious action is not only a serious willful infringement and knowingly dilutes the LV Trademarks, but also may mislead others into thinking 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’,” wrote LV lawyer Michael Pantalony in a cease and desist letter. “I would have thought the Penn Intellectual Property Group, and its faculty advisors, would understand the basics of intellectual property law.”
The rather clever poster had taken the distinctive LV monogram and replaced it with with copyright and trademark symbols.
In a reply to Pantalony, the University’s general counsel wrote a response highlighting the reasons Louis Vuitton’s complaint failed any conceivable interpretation of trademark law — he outlined the standard claims such as confusion, blurring, or tarnishment — and asserted the defenses provided by law for noncommercial and educational fair use. He also invited Pantalony to attend the symposium so that he may learn more about intellectual property. Brilliant.