Consumers are Exposed to Extreme Risks from Counterfeit Products

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Some consumers may view offers of brand name goods from sellers not within the manufacturer’s regular distribution chain as just a way to “get a good deal.”  But those offers can result in purchasers receiving counterfeit products, which are no bargain and can expose unknowing consumers to some of the worst risks imaginable.

At the very least, counterfeit products are frauds – they are not from the manufacturer whose trademark appears on the product, so the consumer is cheated out of the quality that the brand represents.  But in reality, the consumer has absolutely no idea what the contents and construction of a counterfeit product may be – it is a product of unknown origin, regardless of whether the consumer purchased from a known reseller.  Because virtually any product a consumer can purchase can be counterfeited, consumers can be placed in great danger from unknowingly purchasing substandard products.  A couple of recent events in the news highlight the extreme risks of counterfeit products.

In April 2018, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it had raided sellers of supposedly discount brand name cosmetics, and seized $700,000 of counterfeits.  Consumers had complained to the brand manufacturers that makeup products they purchased were causing rashes and bumps on their skin.  The products were determined to be counterfeits that tested positive for high levels of bacteria and animal waste.  This is undoubtedly because the counterfeits are not manufactured with any quality controls or regulatory oversight – they are the result of a black market, pirate operation.  LAPD Detective Rick Ishitani was quoted in the press as saying, “Those feces will just basically somehow get mixed into the product they’re manufacturing in their garage or in their bathroom — wherever they’re manufacturing this stuff.”  One of the brands asserted to be counterfeit was Kylie Cosmetics. Kylie Jenner’s sister, Kim Kardashian West, tweeted:  “Counterfeit Kylie lip kits seized in LAPD raid test positive for feces. SO GROSS! Never buy counterfeit products!”

The risks to consumers of counterfeits unfortunately do not stop even there.  An even more extreme case of product counterfeiting hit the press a few days later.  Tragically, famed rock artist Prince died in April 2016.  It was soon determined that he had died from an overdose of fentanyl, an extremely powerful and dangerous synthetic opioid.  But in April 2018, local prosecutors announced that Prince had consumed the fentanyl by taking tainted counterfeit Vicodin, a brand name medication of AbbVie, Inc.  There was no determination as to how Prince obtained the counterfeit Vicodin pharmaceuticals.  “In all likelihood, Prince had no idea he was taking a counterfeit pill that could kill him.  Others around Prince also likely did not know that the pills were counterfeit containing fentanyl,”  Carver County, Minnesota Attorney Mark Metz was quoted as saying at a news conference.

Some believe that counterfeits can be identified by the price alone, and warn against buying brand name products at steep discounts.  While an inexplicably low price is certainly a red flag of a potential counterfeit, in fact counterfeit products are often sold to consumers at prices very close to those of the brand name product.  This is often because many intermediaries have handled the product, taking a profit with each transaction, in the course of a murky gray market distribution process.

The popularity of online sales make the risks even worse for consumers, as it is nearly impossible for the consumer to inspect the product before purchase and delivery, and it is often very difficult for consumers to determine who is actually selling the product online.  For example, many popular online sellers act as marketplaces for innumerable third party sellers, and a purchaser cannot always determine which seller will actually deliver the product purchased.

If you are a consumer, you really need to exercise great caution when considering purchases of brand name products from sellers who are not in that manufacturer’s authorized distribution channels.  It generally matters little whether the seller is known to the consumer – it only matters where the seller obtained the product.

If you are a brand name manufacturer or trademark holder who suspects that unauthorized parallel market sellers may be offering counterfeit products, you are well advised to promptly contact counsel well-versed in the issues and methods of enforcement of your intellectual property rights.

 

 

 

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The Conkle Firm Addresses The Future of Fashion

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On January 30, 2018, the USC Gould Law School presented “The Future of Fashion,” a panel discussion co-hosted by the IP & Technology Law and Art Law Societies at USC.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney Aleen Tomassian was one of the expert panelists invited to discuss the current state of intellectual property law as it affects the fashion industry, and to discuss how recent court decisions affect the future of the industry.

USC Panel – Aleen Tomassian (Center)

A major point of discussion involved the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent Varsity Brands v. Star Athletica decision, a copyright case that concerned design features on cheerleading uniforms.  Historically, articles of clothing have not generally afforded copyright protection because they are considered “useful articles.”  But the Supreme Court held that the design features of the uniforms in issue were protectable because they were works of art which could be imagined separately from the useful article into which they were incorporated.    Many have suggested that the holding in Star Athletica signals that broad copyright protection would be available for articles of clothing.  But the USC panel discussion made  clear that Star Athletica affirmed that copyright protection is available for design elements as distinct from “useful articles,” and the recognized protection is not available to clothing in general.

The panel addressed the unique intellectual property issues that the fashion industry faces.  There was a broad discussion about the economic and moral impact of “copycat” designs on society and the effects of “knockoffs” on innovation.  Since fashion designs are not specifically protected under U.S. law, the conversation highlighted how attorneys skilled in fashion law use a combination of available forms of protection, including copyright, trademark, trade dress and design and utility patents.  A recent example is the pending case of Puma SE v. Forever 21, Inc., USDC Central District of California Case No. 2:17-cv-02523, in which Puma asserts that it has distinctive shoe designs in a line called Fenty Shoes that is promoted by singer Rhianna.  Puma contends that Forever 21 engaged in deliberate copying of some of its Fenty Shoes designs, notably the popular “Creeper”, “Fur Slide” and “Bow Slide” models.  To protect its designs, Puma alleged infringement of design patents, trade dress and false designation of origin under the Lanham Act, and copyright.  Puma’s copyright claims attempt to leverage the Star Athletica decision by contending that certain elements of the Fenty Shoes “can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional works of art separate from the Fenty Shoes” and “would qualify as protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works – either on their own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression.”   Under the Star Athletica standard, to allow this type of copyright infringement claim, the court will have to determine that “the separately identified feature has the capacity to exist apart from the utilitarian aspects” of the shoe.  “If the feature is not capable of existing as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work once separated from the useful article” – the shoe – then it is a utilitarian feature and not subject to copyright protection.

The attorneys at Conkle, Kremer & Engel have years of experience navigating the complex legal and intellectual property issues faced by clients in the fashion industry.  Our attorneys help clients protect their brands to ensure their continued success in this demanding and fast-paced industry.

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