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Converse Goes to Court to Challenge Chuck Taylor Look-Alikes

But experts say it's tough to prove infringements in design

Converse has filed 22 separate lawsuits in U.S. District Court that accuse 31 companies of infringing on its classic Chuck Taylor All Star design.

In addition, the brand has complained to the International Trade Commission, which has the authority to prevent counterfeit shoes from entering the country.

While Converse, which Nike purchased in 2003, is suing for monetary damages, ultimately the brand is seeking to knock look-alike brands off store shelves. Among the companies named in the suits are Walmart, Kmart, Bob's, Skechers, FILA, Ed Hardy and Ralph Lauren.

"The goal really is to stop this action," Converse CEO Jim Calhoun told The New York Times. "I think we’re quite fortunate here to be in the possession of what we would consider to be an American icon."

To call Converse's signature brand iconic is not hyperbole. First introduced in 1917 and named after spokesman and pro player Chuck Taylor, the shoe's distinctive style has captured the imaginations of generations. Originally marketed as a basketball shoe, the brand experienced its initial heyday in the 1950s and '60s, gaining popularity first with greasers and then with the counterculture crowd. It's during this period that the brand shifted from athletic to everyday footwear. The shoes have been featured in such era-evoking Hollywood films as Grease and Rocky.

The brand eventually floundered, despite remaining popular in certain circles, filing for bankruptcy in the '90s, before Nike came along. Since then, Nike has helped expand Converse's offerings to include new colors and styles, which, in turn, have helped to reinvigorate the brand. In its 2014 fiscal year, Nike reported that Converse generated about $1.7 billion in sales.

But the brand's resurgence in popularity has led to what Calhoun referred to as an "explosion in knockoff activity."

So does Converse really have a case? Not so much, according to legal experts, who said that copyright infringement is difficult to prove.

"It can’t just be that your design is different or novel or interesting. It has to be that consumers associate the design with the source of the design," said R. Polk Wagner, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, in an interview with the Times. "The functionality limitation and the requirement that the design identify source makes it pretty difficult to win."

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