The owner of Rockmount Ranch Wear is accusing high-end fashion brand Coach of creating a “flagrant copy” of one of his company’s iconic western shirts.
Rockmount’s “Atomic Cowboy” shirt, with vintage smile pockets and two embroidered rockets blasting across the shoulder yoke, has been a regular part of the Denver western-wear maker’s collection for “several years,” president Steve Weil said, and was even worn by comedian Paul Scheer in an episode of ABC’s “Fresh off the Boat.”
So, when a Rockmount customer brought to his attention a now sold-out Coach blouse — also embellished with two rockets blasting off across the yoke and fabric arrows that look like smile pockets — Weil cried foul. The similarities, in his mind, were too great to be accidental.
“This is not the first time our intellectual property has been stolen,” Weil said. “I tried to start out thinking the best of people, but sadly many in the apparel business have no integrity.”
In the fashion world, an industry known for imitation and copying, intellectual property issues come up all the time, said Oliver Bajracharya, a partner in Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie’s intellectual property practice in Los Angeles. (The firm also has offices in Denver.)
A case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court focuses on whether a company can copyright the chevrons, zigzags and stripes on cheerleading uniforms. Shoemaker Christian Louboutin has gone to court multiple times to protect the trademark for his company’s red soles.
“There’s a lot of money at stake,” Bajracharya said. “There are some companies who spend a lot of money trying to police their designs. All the big fashion companies have legal departments, some more aggressive than others.”
Under the law, fabric prints and designs — like paintings, books and music scores — are original works of authorship eligible for copyright protection.
“They’ve created a design and they have rights to the design just by creating it,” Bajracharya said.
To win a copyright infringement case, though, a company must prove the copyrighted and offending designs are “substantially similar” and that someone at the offending company had access to the copyrighted design.
(Copyrights can be acquired after the infringement occurs, but the holder loses the right to statutory damages, Bajracharya said.)
“What matters is the pattern is the same. The copyright is for the pattern, the work of authorship, not the (type of) fabric or the shirt design,” he said. “One could be on pants and one could be on a shirt and it would still be arguable that it’s copyright infringement.”
Rockmount has not registered a copyright for the Atomic Cowboy design but Weil said the company has prior use on its side.
Weil said he tried to reach Coach officials to discuss his concerns — with little success. He sent a cease-and-desist letter to the design house’s New York offices, but months later he’s still waiting for a response, he said.
“Our brand is 71 years old. My family has invested their lives in this company,” Weil said. “We will do what we have to do to protect our legacy.”
Coach has no record of Weil contacting the company, said Andrea Shaw Resnick, global head of investor relations and corporate communications.
“Should he have concerns, I welcome him to contact me directly,” Resnick said in an e-mail.
Rockmount has tangled with companies over intellectual property before, Weil said. That includes defending its signature cuff label, to which Rockmount holds the trademark.
“We have litigated trademark infringements and similar things which threatened our brand,” Weil said. “However, rather than obsess on the nearly daily rip off of our intellectual property, we just beat the sleazeballs by remaining innovative every day.”
“If a design is already out there, the world doesn’t need another one — that’s my mantra. It’s been my family mantra for three generations and 71 years,” he said. “If we see someone else going a certain direction, we do the opposite. We take great pains to find inspiration outside conventional channels.”