May 01, 2016

Legally Blonde or Busted?

Cassidy Mantor

Actress Reese Witherspoon’s clothing brand, Draper James, has been sued in federal court for copyright and trademark infringement in the amount of $5 million dollars.

The plaintiff is a West Palm Beach based jewelry designer and online auctioneer, Jordann Weingartner. Her company, I Love Jewelry, claims the actress’s label ripped off her hand drawn and copyrighted magnolia flower designs for its own logo and merchandise.

Defendant, Draper James, uses a stylized magnolia flower logo with the initials DJ engraved in the center. Draper James comes from Witherspoon’s grandparents’ names, Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon.

There is a specific Draper James tote, the Vanderbilt tote, that has the product description that puts this case into issue.

Specifically, the label describes the product as, “A versatile tote that can take you from the bookstore to the farmers’ market, the Vanderbilt is the carryall you’ll reach for daily. This style features a contrasting pinstriped lining and our signature magnolia-shaped hardware. Monogram your Vanderbilt with gold foil lettering or personalize it by hanging our custom leather Key Fobs from the attached exterior ring.”

In the complaint, the plaintiff alleges copyright infringement, trademark infringement and dilution, and unfair competition under the Copyright Act, the Lanham Act, and Florida statutes.

The copyrighted work is described as a “distinctive six-pointed floral design” in the shape of a magnolia.

So, Did Sweet Reese Steal Her Logo from a Tacky Jeweler’s Design?

Weingartner claims to be a celebrity jeweler. She has built an online jewelry empire selling on Facebook, and her success has been documented by various business journals. Her website shows Kourtney Kardashian wearing a small circular charm with a K engraved in it from one of her jewelry collections. She also claims she sent Reese a gift of one of her magnolia necklaces, so Reese would have had knowledge about her design. The complaint calls out that the magnolia designs were copyrighted.

While she holds the copyright for her specific Magnolia jewelry, with titles on the copyrighted works including “Single Magnolia,” “Double Magnolia,” and “Magnolia Charm,” the concept of a magnolia flower as part of a brand identity is not original.

Take Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas, the brainchild of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines. Or Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures. Draper James is a distinctly southern brand, with its target consumer born out of Southern style and sensibility. 

Magnolias, like sweet tea, go hand in hand with the Southern lifestyle captured by Draper James.

What starts to get questionable is the product description of the Vanderbilt tote, with its magnolia hardware, and the similarity of the monogramming service that Draper James is offering to the magnolia engraving that Weingartner’s I Love Jewelry offers.

Customization is a huge trend in the apparel industry, and it is a smart move to offer that service on Draper James’s totes, but there is a likeness that even gives me, the world’s largest Elle Woods fan, an uneasy feeling about the two products.

Most critical to the case though is that the Draper James lady is hardly the same consumer who will be confused by, or even seeking out, the same jewelry that is worn by a Kardashian.

The Vanderbilt tote has several different colorways and designs, including the sold out “Totes Y’all” style that Reese pitched herself on Instagram. Draper James proudly manufactures 40% of its line in the USA, while Weingartner’s products come from China and have received mixed quality reviews. Draper James has a flagship store in Nashville and an impeccably curated eComm site, while Weingartner auctions her jewelry off on Facebook. The marketing and delivery of the products just will not confuse the consumer.

Witherspoon herself described the inspiration for her label: “What I know is Charleston and North Carolina, and the beaches of Georgia. Tailgating. Sipping tea on the porch. Sunday dinners. Dressing for church. Those are the touchstones in my life. Those are the stories I wanted to tell.”

Weingartner told the press that Draper James’ attorneys “basically ignored us. So, we’re ready to fight.”

Awesome.

What Does This Mean for the State of American Fashion Law?

Time will tell whether Draper James settles, or whether the case is dismissed for what it might be, a publicity stunt by a lesser known jewelry designer.

With no specific protection for fashion designs in our country at this time, it will be interesting to see whether the court uses this case to create an example of a common practice in the fashion industry, being “inspired by” existing work out there.

Was Draper James influenced by the magnolia jewelry designs Weingartner has copyrighted? Possibly. It’s also very possible that Draper James was influenced by many other flower designs too, and that it created its own design out of an aggregate of that research.

Did Reese’s company walk the fine line of taking inspiration from an existing design to create an innovative new product? Probably, and everyone does it in the industry! (How about that argument?)

Weingartner’s magnolia is copyrighted, but her styles are hardly original to the apparel and accessories world. Her magnolia resembles the flowers I drew on notebooks when I was in middle school.

Most designers would agree that you have to study the history of fashion, as well as current trends, to drive the creative process. It is a slippery slope to say that all fashion is derivative of pre-existing work, but as cynical as this sounds, there are few truly original ideas in today's fashion that aren’t inspired by preexisting work. That space is reserved for Lady Gaga’s Meat Dress and other truly noteworthy pieces of wearable art.

It seems a shame to find in favor of a designer of tacky apparel and unoriginal jewelry when there is a similarity in a product to a rising brand that promises a future supporting the American manufacturing industry and aspires to deliver quality products.

Besides, on a completely emotional note, do we want more Kardashian-styled women on our streets, or more Witherspoon-dressed ladies representing the future of American women’s fashion?

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Cassidy Mantor

Cassidy Mantor is licensed in New York, Washington, and Montana. After practicing for several years, Cassidy found her true professional strength was in brand marketing. She worked as a marketing manager for Nike and currently is a fashion and law blogger where she helps firms develop their community and clientele. She is particularly thrilled when she gets to combine her two loves and blog about fashion law. To talk to Cassidy about how she can help your firm blog, check out her site, BackwordsFromPerfect.com, or email her at cassidy@dickinsonlawfirm.com.