26 January 2023TrademarksLiz Hockley

Nike takes Japanese streetwear brand to court over ‘copycat versions’ of iconic trainers

Global sportswear firm says it has been provoked into action from increased infringement | Air Force 1, Air Jordan 1 and Dunk have been infringed by “near verbatim copies” claims lawsuit.

Nike is suing Japanese fashion brand Bape, also known as A Bathing Ape, for selling trainers that allegedly rip off its iconic designs.

The lawsuit was filed yesterday in a New York District Court, following what Nike says is an escalation in a significant history of copying by Bape. Nike is seeking to enforce its trademarks related to three of its most iconic shoes—the Air Force 1, Air Jordan 1 and Dunk, which it says have been copied by Bape.

According to the complaint, Bape has been selling infringing footwear in the US for as long as 15 years, resembling a game of “Whac-A-Mole”, with copycat products popping up and then disappearing. This activity was largely overlooked by Nike as it constituted “never more than a small fraction of the millions of pairs Nike sells annually”, the lawsuit states.

However, in 2021, Bape scaled up its activities in the US, opening stores in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. Nike says the firm re-introduced its Bape STA shoe, allegedly a copy of Nike’s Air Force 1, as well as several other trainers—the SK8 STA, Court STA and Court STA High—all of which infringe Nike designs as “near verbatim copies”.

“Bape has wrongfully capitalised on Nike’s fame and its asserted marks by making, promoting, advertising, marketing and selling in the US footwear bearing the asserted marks and/or confusingly similar marks,” the lawsuit says.

Nike has ordered Bape to stop selling the shoes and is seeking an unspecified amount of damages.

Market confusion

Founded in Japan in 1993, Bape expanded its presence into the US in the mid-2000s. Nike says that the two firms met in 2009 “to address Bape’s pirating of Nike’s iconic Air Force 1 design and to protect Nike’s intellectual property rights”, and that following this meeting, Bape decreased its sales in the US.

But in a turnaround in 2021, Bape “drastically increased the volume and scape” of its US activity and, according to the complaint, this has already caused confusion in the marketplace with Bape’s shoes being sold as genuine Nike products, and some consumers referring to them as such.

The suit says that Bape’s actions have grown unacceptable and pose a significant danger to Nike’s rights, and that despite a cease-and-desist letter sent in August 2022, Bape continued to sell its infringing products.

WIPR has contacted Bape for comment.

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