It amazes me how brazen some companies can be when it comes to trademark infringement. Even if it was a mistake by the marketing department, the Target case signals a complete lack of corporate training on trademark issues and a complete lack of review by senior management or the legal team to identify basic intellectual property issues before a nationwide online retail campaign was launched.
Target Corp. is being sued by Stickley for trademark infringement. In early December, Target advertised a Stickley copycat (or “inspired”) furniture line that included a futon. The problem was not in the likeness of the furniture design itself, but in the fact that Target advertised the products as “Stickley” furniture pieces. Stickley is a high end long-standing brand with a distinctive style, quality and reputation. While there may be similar designs sold, they cannot bear the proprietary brand name “Stickley.” Importantly, only some of its furniture items were advertised as “Stickley.” According to Stickley, this increased the perception that some of the products were actually sourced from the Stickley manufacturer.
The iconic furniture maker is especially upset because this use by Target dilutes their brand and high end quality perception. The Target pieces were inferior quality low cost pieces. If consumers believed these were true Stickley products, their high-quality reputation would be tarnished. Several of the reviews posted online about the product were terrible, a clear indication that the quality reputation was negatively affected. In at least one user claimed he or she returned the product because it was so terrible. One user even wrote that the product was dangerous.
This case will be an expensive lesson for Target. Stickley is asking for damages of between $200,000 and $2,000,000 per item sold, plus attorneys fees. Stickley also wants all of the products recalled. And all of this for a totally preventable rookie mistake.
There are some takeaways for any business with an online retail presence. You may have a department that creates your website, or you may outsource that function to another company to design and/or operate your online store. However, you as the business and site owner are responsible for intellectual property violations and infringements. You need to educate those doing this work on the rules regarding copyright and trademark, and have a process for reviewing content before it goes live. While these seems simple and obvious, it is clear that even large companies don’t always do what should be common sense despite the tremendous resources at their disposal. Don’t fall into the same snakepit.