Copy of original Levi made by Levi Strauss after emigrating to America, Judisches Museum, Berlin, GermanyBerlin, Germany - 2007

Those tabs on the back of jeans belong to Levi Strauss. And the 164-year-old clothing company has spent three-quarters of a century making sure everyone knows it.

Levi Strauss & Co., which first used a folded piece of cloth as a tab on the back of its pants as early as 1936 and then registered it as a trademark in 1949, has sued or tried to sue almost everyone in the fashion industry. The list includes Diesel, The Limited, Guess, Bugle Boy, Benetton, Vineyard Vines, Ann Taylor, Stussy, Forever 21, Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana and more.

In the latest case, Levi Strauss & Co. filed a lawsuit earlier this month against the Kering subsidiary Yves Saint Laurent in a California district court, accusing the luxury fashion house of trademark infringement after YSL released a pair of pants with a similar tab on the back.

YSL did not respond to a request for comment. But some say Levi’s has a reputation of being a bit of a bully.

While it’s not uncommon for designers to be influenced by their peers, the New York Times described Levi’s as “the most litigious in the apparel industry” more than a decade ago, after reporting that the jeans-maker initiated more trademark infringement lawsuits than any other clothing company, including Nike and Chanel.

In addition to suing over the tab, the clothing company has sued over the double-arch stitching on the back pocket of its jeans and even the placement of the patch on the back of the jeans that reads “Levi Strauss Originals” and features images of men on horses.

But Douglas Hand, a fashion lawyer at Hand Baldachin & Amburgey, pointed out that policing a trademark is actually required by law for trademark owners.

“More often than not, the so-called ‘trademark bully’ is doing nothing more than policing misuse of its trademark,” Hand said.

Trademarked items are considered brand indicators, or products that consumers can recognize just by looking at the logo. Think of the Nike swoosh or Louis Vuitton’s “LV” patterned monogram.

“The alternative to being a trademark bully is being accused of allowing too many third parties to use the trademark and that can lead to dilution,” Hand said.

In fact, if Levi doesn’t protect its brand, it would be difficult for the company to later argue that it owns the trademark rights.

A competitor could easily say, “Look, this is already out there and Levi has done nothing about it,” Hand said. “The sounder legal advice here is to err on the side of being called a bully.”

Most of Levi’s previous cases have been settled out of court with little monetary gain for the clothing-maker.

In the most recent case, Levi Strauss & Co. said it owns the “tab trademark” on Levi’s jeans, pants, jackets shirts and other clothing products.

Images from court documents show Levi’s jean tabs, left, compared with YSL’s jean tabs, right  Courtesy

Levi’s did not respond to a request for comment, but court documents allege YSL’s copycat pants were produced “with the intent to cause confusion, mistake or deception.” Meanwhile, Levi’s original jeans are “distinctive and famous.”

“Unless YSL is restrained by this court, it will continue and/or expand its illegal activities and otherwise continue to cause great and irreparable damage and injury to LS&Co.,” the court documents state.

Levi’s is asking for damages in the amount of three times YSL’s profits off its jeans with tabs.

“Levi is well within their rights and they’re smart to be staying on top of these things. If they’re active, they can ensure that their trademark rights stay valid, that it doesn’t slip and people start using it,” said Ryan Fox, an associate intellectual property lawyer at Sideman & Bancroft.

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