PARIS — Adidas keeps earning its stripes.

In an ongoing, multistep legal process, the European Court of Justice on Thursday ruled in favor of the German activewear giant, which is fighting to protect its three-stripe trademark. If it wins the case, Adidas will be able to prohibit retailers from selling sportswear with patterns resembling its three stripes in Europe.

The ruling Thursday dismissed claims from fast-fashion and other retail behemoths, including Hennes & Mauritz, C&A, Marca Mode CV and Vendex, that they are protected by trademark laws.

Adidas, the word’s second largest activewear manufacturer after Nike, brought a case before a Dutch court in 1997 in which it looked to block retailers from selling competing manufacturers’ sportswear that used identical or similar stripes as Adidas, claiming it “would cause confusion.” The retail chains’ counterargument was that they relied on a “requirement of availability” law, which states stripes and simple stripe motifs are signs that “must remain available to all,” since they are purely decorative and therefore free to be used without Adidas’ consent.

Over the years, the case moved through the system up to the Netherlands’ supreme court, which last year referred it to the European Court of Justice for guidance.

On Thursday, that court ruled the “requirement of availability” was not a relevant claim in this instance because the stripe motifs used by Adidas’ competitors can confuse consumers so are not purely decorative. Furthermore, the court said Adidas could prohibit the use of its competitors’ two-stripe motif even if there is no confusion because Adidas’ signature stripes have gained a reputation among consumers.

“Protection does not require the existence of a likelihood of confusion” with such a reputable motif, the five-judge panel on the EU court ruled. “The mere fact that the relevant section of public establishes a link between [Adidas and the stripes] is sufficient.”

“In protecting our famous three-stripes trademark, we do not seek to prevent the use of decoration, but the use of striped markings that confuse consumers, or cause them to make a link with our company and its famous trademark,” said an Adidas spokeswoman.

This story first appeared in the April 11, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The case will next be sent back to a Dutch court, which must apply Thursday’s ruling to how it handles the claim.

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