There are few symbols so powerful as the logos of major sports apparel companies in the minds of consumers. In the right hands, they've come to be associated with the greatest in human sporting achievement, a clever bit of branding on the part of the respective marketers who first saw the advantage of having their logos plastered on our best athletes as they appear on TV. For others, particularly those of us who have gone a little soft around the middle, the represent both comfort and potential. The combination of athletic footwear with the requisite shorts or yoga pants suggests, "I could go running today; I won't, but I could." And for many of us, that potential is enough to invest heavily in these brands meant for those gifted with more ability and more determination.
One of the biggest names in athletic apparel, Adidas, finds itself in a heated pitch to expand its trademark protection across the European Union. The company lost a case in the EU courts in which the judge ruled that the company's three stripes branding was not distinctive enough to uphold the EU trademark. The case was brought by a Belgian shoe manufacturer, Shoe Branding Europe, who claimed that the EU trademark for "three parallel equidistant stripes of identical width" was not of sufficient distinctiveness to warrant the trademark protection.
The case only applies to the singular specific instance of the three stripes as illustrated on the first page of the ruling here. The three stripe pattern as associated with Adidas dates back decades to Adi Dassler's first registration of the mark in 1949, And Adidas maintains a number of trademarks on the three stripe design in a number of other patterns and arrangements, so the ruling doesn't mean the end of the iconic logo, or the branding on shirts, shoes, pants and every other item that we buy.
The ruling does represent the challenge that can exist for brands in trying to protect marks across territories and in courts that might be less inclined to grant them a greater latitude or more consideration in areas that might be considered indistinct. Not that such a change would necessarily be a bad thing; the encroachment of major companies and figures on everyday words and phrases and marks threatens to negate the ability of the average consumer, let alone the small startup, to try and function without violating some sort of trademark. But companies like Adidas, that have built a brand on top of a relatively simple design, have found themselves in the firing line of a battle to find the right balance between protecting rights and preserving general marks of expression.