Trademarks pack a powerful punch for millions of brands around the world. Oftentimes, trademarks are seemingly simple designs that evoke strong connotations. They can be a simple letter, such as an “M” representing one of the most famous trademarks in the world, the golden arches of McDonald’s. They can be a simple mark, such as the Nike swoosh. They can be a simple word, such as the made-up word “Google” or a generic word such as “Apple” that translates to one of the biggest technological brands around the globe. While these trademarks are seemingly simple, they spark recognition and association with particular brands that make them potent and valuable. This is why companies sue when trademark designs are too similar.
Some of the most famous brands have had to fight companies that emulated logos as parodies. For instance, The North Face sued the owner of The South Butt apparel because it felt that the parody devalued The North Face brand and could cause confusion. In this case, The South Butt owner designed a logo with similarities to The North Face logo. The North Face logo uses 3 ridges, while The South Butt logo featured upside down ridges. Both used red squares and white lettering. The parties settled and The South Butt dissolved. In another parody case, Starbucks was prepared to battle Dumb Starbucks, which used a nearly identical logo, with the word “Dumb” added to it. However, the shop was a very short-lived venture and was a stunt for a comedian’s project. However, the comedian did not obtain permission from Starbucks to use the logo and likely could have faced a lawsuit.
Adidas has sued several shoe companies for offering designs that too closely resemble the Adidas three-stripe trademark. For instance, Adidas has sued Skechers, Puma, and Ecco over its three stripes. In another footwear case, Converse sued 31 companies in 2014 for selling shoes with similar rubber and black stripes as its Chuck Taylor sneakers.
Countless other trademark infringement cases have occurred over trademarks that too closely match another company’s. One of the most popular companies, Apple, has taken issue with numerous companies for logos that look like an Apple. Some of these companies include Woolworths, GreeNYC, Victoria School of Business and Technology, Poison Apple, and others. In many of these cases, the opponent relented and changed its logo to avoid confrontation with the giant technology company.
However, it may be possible to have the same or similar trademarks within unrelated markets. For instance, the Infiniti moniker represents numerous products such as automobiles, HVAC systems, computer printers, hair supplies, and others. In such cases, the chance of consumer confusion is low or nonexistent. Consumers are not likely to confuse Nissan’s Infiniti trademark for automobiles with Conair’s Infiniti trademark for hair styling tools. It is also possible, but rare, to use the same trademark in the same market. Recently, two universities reached an agreement on the usage of the OSU trademark. Oklahoma State University and The Ohio State University can both use the OSU trademark under specific guidelines. Namely, the colleges can only use the colors of their respective college. Neither can disparage the other with phrases, and neither can use nicknames or mascots of the other in the use of the OSU trademark.
As you can see, trademarks are quite powerful and trademark owners will go to great lengths to protect them. However, it is also valid to have similar trademarks in unrelated markets. Yet, using a unique and new trademark creation may be easier and less likely to be challenged than using a trademark with similar traits to another, even if the markets are unrelated.