Navajo Nation's Trademark Suit Against Urban Outfitters Proceeds; But Should It?
from the trademark-nation dept
Alright, this one has me more than a bit puzzled. We’ve written here before about Urban Outfitters, which has previously been on the receiving end of intellectual property disputes in the form of the company’s use of famous Obama iconography and for trying to inject a bit of humor into its coffee offerings. This time around, however, the clothing retailer is facing a lawsuit from the Navajo Nation for selling clothing and merchandise with patterns inspired by Native American designs and including the word “Navajo” or “Navaho” in the offerings.
The clothing chain will ask a federal judge in Santa Fe, N.M., on Wednesday to limit how far back in time the tribe can go to seek money over the company’s products, which included everything from necklaces, jackets and pants to a flask and underwear with the “Navajo” name.
The tribe’s lawsuit alleging trademark violations has been working its way through the courts for more than three years. Efforts to settle the case featuring two unlikely foes have failed as the tribe seeks vast sums of money from the company that also owns the Anthropologie and Free People brands.
The tribe isn’t specifying exactly how much it’s seeking, but considering it is asking for all the profits from the relevant merchandise on some of the products in question, and $1,000 per day per item on others, we’re talking about millions of dollars here. The tribe is arguing that Urban Outfitters is violating the tribe’s federal and state trademarks on its name, as well as the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which was designed to prevent the sale of goods designed to fool customers into thinking that they were actually made by Native Americans. Let’s deal with these in reverse order.
Urban Outfitters is the kind of retailer you find commonly in shopping districts all over the place. The company has never attempted to draw any affiliation with Native Americans in the past. Navajo branded clothing is branded as such as an homage to the inspiration for the design. The Navajo Nation has put forth a survey showing that 40% of consumers were confused by the use, but Urban Outfitters is expected to attack the validity of the survey. Keep in mind that the Arts and Crafts Act is entirely about fooling customers into thinking that the goods were made by Native Americans, rather than having anything to do with appropriating the name of the tribe. It’s the kind of thing that, even if this were an actual valid problem, could be fixed by Urban Outfitters putting up a sign that said, “These products were not made by Native Americans,” or something of that nature. But that isn’t what the tribe actually wants. They want licensing from the trademark of their name.
As for the trademark in question, Urban Outfitters claims that “Navajo” is generic and that the tribe has abandoned the trademark first granted in the 1940s. The Navajo Nation pushed back with some history of the term Navajo, which was apparently a derogatory term invented by Spanish settlers. The claim is that the inventive nature of the word is a rebuttal on it being generic.
The Nation disputes the allegation of genericness. It asserts that the NAVAJO® mark is inherently distinctive as either fanciful, arbitrary or suggestive. According to the Nation, the mark is a fanciful because the term “Navajo” is an archaic, invented name, and fanciful when applied to the classes of goods of jewelry, clothing and accessories. Ironically, the Nation explained that the term was originally a derogative term used by the Spanish when referring to members of the Nation. The Nation members themselves refer to themselves as Diné. Accordingly, NAVAJO® is an invented term and fanciful when applied to the goods sold by the Nation.
In the alternative, the mark is arbitrary when used to describe these goods. Finally, the Nation contends that the mark is at the very least suggestive, because it suggests or requires an extra inference that goods sold are associated with the Nation.
I’m just not sure how a trademark on “Navajo” is substantively different than allowing for a trademark on “American”, “Mexican” or “Canadian.” It’s the name of a people, nationality, or ethnicity. I’m struggling to see how such terms on their own are not generic.