A small garden supply business called L V Bespoke recently won its fight to keep its name against the French luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton. Experts say such cases have increased “hugely” in the past 18 months as major brands seek to protect their intellectual property. But what actually happens when a multi-national firm comes knocking at your door?
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Victoria Osborne ran a holiday letting business and her husband Lawrence worked in construction.
“When the pandemic arrived, both of our incomes were wiped out literally overnight,” says Mrs Osborne.
Amid what she describes as a “mad panic” the couple, who were renovating their home in Reepham, near Norwich, focused on their garden and began growing their own food while former boat builder Mr Osborne tried his hand at making metal plant supports.
The supports turned out well. So well, in fact, the couple wondered if others would be willing to pay for them. They were.
The business grew from selling the supports on Gumtree and at car boot sales to being featured by the Royal Horticultural Society.
The couple had named the business using their own first initials, and L V Bespoke was born.
The trade mark was sent off to the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), which receives more than 150,000 registration requests each year, in December 2021. An examiner carried out initial checks and no issues were raised.
But when the application to register the L V Bespoke trademark was made public, Louis Vuitton Malletier objected in March 2022 via lawyers in London claiming the trademark impinged on its intellectual property.
“We were very shocked and surprised,” says Mrs Osborne. “We thought it was a practical joke by one of our friends.
“It was just ludicrous to think they had the rights to the letters “L” and “V” and there was no comparison to be made between our goods and theirs.”
They sought legal advice almost immediately and decided to stick to their guns.
IPO Tribunal Judge Matthew Williams found in the couple’s favour, deciding Louis Vuitton’s opposition had failed “on all grounds”.
- In 2022, a Norwich-based gin-maker, which dates back to 1837 was told by lawyers acting for Red Bull there was a “likelihood of confusion on behalf of the public” as both brand names “include the term bull”. Bullards won the case
- When Kate McKenzie, from Duston, Northampton, created a child literacy tool called Word Windows she incurred the wrath of software giant Microsoft. The dispute was resolved when Ms Mckenzie agreed to drop the “s” and call her product Word Window
- In 2023, the singer Katy Perry lost a trademark battle with an Australian fashion designer called Katie Perry. Katie Taylor, who sells clothes under her birth name Katie Perry, sued the pop star, saying her merchandise infringed a trademark she owned. A judge found in the designer’s favour
Although Louis Vuitton has not responded to the BBC’s requests for comment on the case, Jamie Muir Wood, who represented the firm during the tribunal told the hearing that Louis Vuitton’s trademark contained the letters “L” and “V” and that it was understood those letters “stand for Louis Vuitton”.
He said the Osborne’s logo “contains the same two letters, in the same order, followed by the word ‘bespoke'”. It also contains some slight figurative decoration.
“Conceptually, we say that there is essentially identity or very high similarity because both signs refer to a brand LV,” he told the hearing.
“So we say this points to the average consumer seeing these conceptually as a brand on sub-brand, the shared concept being a brand called LV.”
Mrs Osborne says the 22 months from the time Louis Vuitton objected to their trademark to winning their case has been both costly and stressful.
“This has been a massive thing hanging over our heads,” she says. “I am sleeping easier now than I was but I have also been battling significant health issues during this.
“I would like to believe that the higher-ups in the Louis Vuitton food chain were not aware of this. My ultimate goal is to get an apology from them.”
Melanie Harvey, a legal director at Birketts LLP and a chartered trade mark attorney, says the Osborne’s case is far from unique.
She says in the past 18 months there has been a “huge” rise big firms seeking to protect their trademarks. She says clothing businesses, champagne makers and high end brands were particularly busy protecting their identities at the moment.
IPO figures show the number of defended tribunal cases rose 44% from 2,254 in 2021-22 to 3,247 in 2022-23.
“They want to make sure all of their brand identifiers are safeguarded,” says Ms Harvey, who represented the Osborne’s during their case.
She says she strongly supports the rights of businesses to protect their brands when there are clear breaches.
Many companies employ a “watch service” to scour public registers and the internet for any potential trademark infringements.
She says people such as the Osbornes will often be approached by representatives from trade mark holders and asked to withdraw their application in order to avoid further issues.
“It is a shock when you get this type of approach,” says Ms Harvey.
Many people “fold immediately”, she adds.
Others will stand their ground initially but eventually give in because of the costs and stress involved in defending a disputed trademark application.
“It is a highly stressful situation to be in,” she says. “And it is quite common for people to back out because of the toll it takes.”
She says she quite often sees cases in which new businesses have, sometimes unwittingly, sailed too close to the trademark wind and infringed on the intellectual property of a large company.
As for the Osbornes, Louis Vuitton has been told to pay £4,000 towards their £15,000 legal bill.
Asked whether they might now dabble in a line of luxury gold or silver plant stands, Mrs Osborne says: “I think that might be a step too far.
“We’re just happy to have this landmark victory.”
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