Over the past few years, Converse, whose Chuck Taylor shoes were worn by many folks in subcultures as well as mainstream culture, began suing some competitors whose shoes were infringing on their trademarks, mainly on the basis of the way the shoe looks.
The event that sparked my interest in this, was when I went to purchase my third pair of Ethletic sneakers, and found them out of stock, indefinitely. Later I found that the company that distributed them in the US, Autonomie Project, had been sued by Converse for ‘trademark infringement and unfair business practices’ (Boston Globe, see the ‘Sources’ section of this book).
Now, I believe in a company’s right to have a trademark. The idea behind trademark law, and intellectual property in itself, is the idea that such things encourage people to make things, allowing them a time to have exclusive rights to the design, and earn a profit off of their work in creating and making the thing. The Chuck Taylor All Star, created in 1917, has made a lot of money for Converse, and is an icon of design in itself. I understand why they would want to protect that.
But here is where I take issue: The law that set forth trademark, also called the ‘Lanham Act’, was designed to prevent confusion in the market place. A good example would be if Tylenol was the only brand of Acetaminophen, and someone started selling something that looked very similar to Tylenol, maybe even called Tylenol, but was of inferior quality to actual Tylenol. To some folks, this may contaminate or diminish the perceived quality of Tylenol’s product. It also may leverage Tylenol’s brand name to sell things that are not made by Tylenol. In short, these laws can protect against folks buying a cheaper, fake product, thus deceiving customers, and leaving customers with an unreliable product. To a certain extent, this law is very important, and guarantees that what we buy is what we think we are buying, be it Tylenol, reliable parts for our cars (like brakes), or any other product where an expectation of product quality could have significant impact on our lives.
However, Converse isn’t exactly making the old All Stars any more. Once they were purchased by Nike, they moved their production overseas, changed the design of the shoe from a two-ply cloth to a stiffer one-ply, and adopted Nike’s practices of production, which have been described by organizations that monitor labor conditions as sweatshop labor. And this is where Ethletic differed. The Ethletic shoes were marketed touting their natural rubber/latex soles, their organic cotton, and their production in a responsible, non-sweatshop condition, all at the same price. And they were only available from retailers that were conscious of these product qualities. In short, these were never going to be on the shelf, next to a pair of Nike Converse, or cause a person to accidentally buy them instead of Nike Converse. But they did look very similar.
The ironic part of Converse suing Autonomie Project over the Ethletic shoes, is that the Ethletic shoes were a higher quality item, marketed almost in response to Converses failure to have such standards in its own footwear. And Ethletic were not the first to do this. No Sweat Apparel, from Massachusetts, made their own similar shoes, ethically produced, in the early 2000s. But when No Sweat went out of business, Ethletic were the only option for an ethically produced product. Where the irony occurs, is that as the trademark laws are designed to prevent against inferior products being passed off as genuine, and high-quality, in the case of the Ethletic sneakers, here was a a shoe, made by workers whom were well-paid in non-sweatshop conditions, made of high-quality, sustainably produced fabric and rubber, being sued to stop production, so that a shoe made of less quality materials, by workers described as working in sweatshop conditions, could not be ‘infringed’ upon.
In my view, this use of the trademark law, one designed to ensure consumers can receive high quality products, and not be tricked into inferior products, in this case, actually does the opposite. This use of the trademark law actually removes a higher quality alternative to Converse. And instead of Converse responding by offering a higher quality product to counter the Ethletic shoe and make Ethlectic a redundant, inferior product, they chose to sue them, and have their own inferior product be the only option on the market. And when a company the size of Converse and Nike does this, it defines a new status quo.
And to me, that sets back the quality of options for all folks, and ultimately, the progress of shoe manufacturing, and ethical production.
Accordingly, I now see the Chuck Taylor, not as the shoe worn by folks of a subculture, but rather as the intellectual property of a company whom would rather perpetuate it’s existence on an idea of what they say it means through advertising, rather than make any meaningful movement on what it is. We must remember, every product is the end result of a process. And what the Chuck Taylor shoe is, is the product of a process of industry average processes, mired in ethical and sustainability compromises, and litigation to protect anyone from offering a better alternative to it. It is, in design, an iconoclast, but in my mind, it is now an icon of an old way of thinking, anti-progress, anti-competition, and ultimately, the abuses of a system of laws designed to encourage development by companies and protect consumers, being used in a way to violate both of those premises. In short, I now see the Chuck Taylor as the new status quo of conscious-less production.
Situations such as this force us to re-evaluate both the specific brand, the idea of brands themselves, and the system of laws that brands use to protect their intellectual property.