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Business

Adidas Loses Battle of the Stripes

German sportswear giant Adidas suffered a defeat in its court case against a rival firm on Thursday when the European Court of Justice ruled that its famous three stripe logo had not been threatened.

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Adidas feared that a rival two-stripe logo would confuse customers shopping for its global brand

In the latest round in the seven-year fight between German giant Adidas and Netherlands-based Fitnessworld Trading Ltd., Europe’s highest court ruled that the Adidas logo is viewed as merely ‘decorative’ in Holland and so a similar Fitnessworld motif does not breach EU intellectual property law.

Adidas had claimed that the Fitnessworld two-stripe design infringes on its trademark and threatens the sales of garments bearing the famous three-stripes of the German giant in the Dutch marketplace.

Rival stripes are just decoration

Europäischer Gerichtshof in Luxemburg

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The Luxembourg-based court declared that Fitnessworld only used its stripes as decoration on and ruled that a two-stripe design did not infringe on Adidas' trademark. The court added that companies such as Adidas could argue a trademark violation if the public "establishes a link" between their trademark and a similar sign but cannot stop others from using purely decorative items.

Officials at the court said the case will now go back to the Dutch Supreme Court, which referred the case to European judges after Adidas appealed a lower court's ruling in 1998. However, this latest decision by the ECJ backs up the original rulings made in the Dutch courts made five years ago.

Previous Dutch ruling made same decision

Adidas Schuhe

Adidas. Not Fitnessworld.

Then, Dutch courts had stated that the use of two stripes was common as a motif used to 'decorate' sports clothing in the Netherlands and that the brand identity of Adidas, the world's number two sportswear firm, was strong enough to prevent concern in the marketplace.

Adidas continued to fight on and brought its case to the Luxembourg in July this year. At the initial hearing, a senior judge delivered a non-binding opinion and rejected claims from the German firm that the motif of its Dutch rival “rides on the back of the company's trademark, dilutes brand exclusivity and confuses consumers.”

Dutch motif no fixed trademark

Francis Jacobs, the ECJ’s Advocate General, stated at the time that the Fitnessworld double stripe design was merely "simple decorative embellishment" in the eyes of the Dutch public and could not be contested as a fixed trademark. Although the Advocate General’s opinion did not carry official legal weight, it was seen as a strong indication as to which way the final ECJ ruling would go.

So it was of little surprise to Adidas when the ECJ handed the company a defeat on Thursday. However, it is still a blow for the Munich-based sportswear maker and the rigorous defense it has mounted of its world famous stripe logo which replaced the famed ‘trefoil’ flower as the global Adidas identity in 1996.

Davis Beckham in China

David Beckham earns his stripes with Adidas team, Real Madrid.

The three Adidas stripes can be seen on the clothes and equipment of some of the world's most famous sports teams and stars. Soccer clubs Bayern Münich, Real Madrid and the German national squad all run out in Adidas kit while personalities like David Beckham, Olympic swimming champion Ian Thorpe and Justine Henin-Hardenne, the current women's tennis number one, promote the brand worldwide.

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