The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For

A few weeks ago I saw a suggestion come across my Hulu welcome screen entitled “The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For”. My first impression was that I knew all about the brand, especially the many details of how it was counterfeited into oblivion. Either way, I knew I wanted to watch it to see if my account was correct or if there was more to the story.

Turns out, as comprehensive as I thought my perspective might have been, there were some things I missed, or was not privy to. I worked for their lawyers during the peak enforcement process and I knew things were a little off. And this documentary helps bring that to light.

Bobby Vaughn and Mike Cassel were two surfer dudes who appropriated the IP of a counterculture icon named Kenny Howard a.k.a. Von Dutch (1929-1992). Howard’s philosophy about Intellectual Property was that no one owned anything and that all creativity was meant for the world to share. So, in 1999, Vaughn and Cassel spun off the Von Dutch brand from another fashion line they had that was not doing well.

Before Bobby and Mike knew it, the Von Dutch brand took off. Celebrities were all over it, wearing their apparel on every television channel available. Along with the success of the brand came organized criminals they had previously tapped for startup funds. This made life difficult because there were established cartel captains that demanded cuts from the sales.

But the two surfer dudes, as savvy creatives as they were, could not manage the explosive success of this brand. It was then that they welcomed investors and a CEO from Europe. All of a sudden, French fashion designer Christian Audigier was the face of the brand. Christian blew the brand up to levels no one dreamed. But, as the genuine product sales grew, the counterfeit sales grew exponentially.

“Here’s the problem. When you are already a logo-driven brand where your logo is your main seller its easy to slap a logo on a piece of thing and sell it and call it Von Dutch. We were the second most counterfeited brand in the world next to Louis Vuitton.” ~ European Investor Tonny Sorensen.

This was where my team and I came in. In the early 2000’s, counterfeiting fashion brands on the Internet was at its peak. Yes, the flea markets and street vendors were also going bananas, but Internet sales were new, and I was the guy that handled these types of cases.

What was discovered was that the folks behind this brand never laid a proper foundation for enforcement. They didn’t spend the few cents per item required to tag the genuine goods properly so that they could be differentiated from the fake. By the time they brought in the proper attorneys and investigators, the problem was out of control there was very little that could be done.

“In the height of our business, we were doing probably around the $300 to $400 million mark. The counterfeits were north of a billion for sure.”~ Niels Juul, Von Dutch investor

I’ve met both of the original creatives Bobby and Mike during my years living in Venice Beach and find their stories fascinating. I don’t blame them for the counterfeiting problem (bringing in the cartels is another story). But, when the European investors came in and hired high-priced attorneys corners were cut while people were too busy making money.

The lesson to learn here is that, before your brand takes off, make sure you have already laid the foundation for a good enforcement plan. We can help you with that. Contact us at MI:33 and we will be glad to get things going for you.

Why Felix the Cat is a Detective Hero

Felix ChevroletI was running an errand the other day in Downtown Los Angeles. As a big fan of classic Hollywood and detective fiction, I relish in the landmarks and mainstays, from the outdoor urban paradise of MacArthur Park to the crowds of bustling travelers at Union Station; from the authentic Hispanic heritage so beautifully displayed on Olvera Street to the architectural marvel of the Bradbury building (where, by the way, the most cinematic scene from “Blade Runner” was shot). But none of them tickle me as much as the iconic Felix the Cat sign atop the almost century-old Felix Chevrolet. Continue reading “Why Felix the Cat is a Detective Hero”

Brand Protection and Social Media

In the era of telecommuting and coffee shop branch offices, Facebook has replaced the watercooler, LinkedIn is the new resume and Skype is the new boardroom. Let’s face it. Your online ‘brand’ has become your most public persona. Along with the vast benefits that social media bring a new world has opened up for fraud, misinformation and brand abuse. Holmes is not only a top brand protection investigator. He is also the one-man marketing department for his firm. Combining his two passions of trademark investigations and social media, he will take you on his journey from creating his first blog, designing his firm’s website, and planning a social media strategy and then arm you with brand protection tactics that he employs for his clients.  Rob gave this talk, entitled Brand Protection and Social Media in June 2012 in Dallas, Texas.

How the Megaupload Case Has Hurt Brand Protection

The reason the case against Megaupload founder Kim DotCom has hurt brand protection is because it has nothing to do with trademark enforcement and no one knows it.  With all of the news this case is getting, the public-at-large does not know the difference between counterfeiting and piracy.  There are many different kinds of Intellectual Property but only trademark was set up to protect the consumers before the content owner.  The purpose of a trademark is to identify the origin of a good or service.  The way this works is that, if you see my name or logo on my product, you can trust that it was made by me.  Trademarks are set up as a seal of trust and quality between a manufacturer and a consumer.  People who slap your favorite company’s logo on an inferior product deserve to be made to stop.  By placing a company’s logo on a commercial work without permission helps dilute the brand.  Even if your use is apparently harmless, they must enforce all unauthorized uses in order to be allowed to enforce the baddies.  It’s the basic rule that your school teacher had when you were a child, “If I make an exception for you, I’d have to do it for all the other kids.”  Copyright protection is quite different.  It protects the creator or the owner.  While that is still a noble cause, the difference needs to be made clearer to the public.  The Copyright Act of 1790 granted an author up to 28 years of exclusive rights to his work as long as he was alive.  In 1948 the United Nations passed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states ‘Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.’  I am citing this to make it clear that I vehemently support the protection of content.  I do not, however, support the combining of these interests.  Our founding fathers were careful to place copyright in the hands of the legislature (Library of Congress) and trademarks in the hands of the Executive Branch (US Patent and Trademark Office).  This was no mistake.

In 1946 the United States passed the Lanham Act which prohibited trademark infringement, trademark dilution and false advertising.  In 1984 the Trademark Counterfeiting Act established specific criminal penalties for the commercial use of a counterfeit trademark.  Later, in 1999, the AntiCybersquatting Act was passed to prohibit the unauthorized commercial use of a trademark in a domain name.  President George W. Bush made trademarks a priority when he appointed the first-ever Intellectual Property Czar, which was an undersecretary position within the Commerce Department.  Of course trademark protection should be important.  Our brands are exported all over the world and we rely on the reputation of those brands for more than a third of our economy.  When President Obama was elected, he promoted the IPEC (Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator) position from undersecretary to full cabinet status.  Somewhere between then and now this person with executive power has been dubbed the Copyright Czar.  If the Executive Branch is granted to be in charge of trademarks and patents, why are they in the copyright business?  Perhaps American corporations and our own government have been blurring the distinction between the two to make sloppy cases less noticeable.  Or perhaps this is happening so that the specificity of Intellectual Property Rights becomes so unrecognizable that anyone can be prosecuted for almost anything.  Or perhaps this is all just a completely innocent mix-up.  Once we start to see copyright enforcement activity at the USPTO, we will know that our constitution is being ignored.  Protection of all property needs to be respected, but the trademark community needs to stand alone in this fight if we want to bring trust back to the consumer.

Now I’m going to finish my coffee.