Brazen Bikers Lay Down the Law

By Alison Parker

Reviewed by Jennifer Williams

If a worldwide organized crime gang sues you for trademark infringement, chances are they mean business. Notorious tough-guys, the Hells Angels filed suit in San Francisco District Court against Amazon.com and small Hollywood fashion house Wildfox over a tee-shirt. The offending shirt reads: “My boyfriend’s a Hells Angel” on the front and dons a pair of angel wings on the back.

The 2,500 member motorcycle club, who registered its trademark in 1982, is rather litigious and usually gets its way. In the past the crew has sued Disney and Marvel Comics over the use of the Hells Angels image in their respective story lines for a movie and a comic book. The Hells Angels have also sued over the use of its mark in the fashion industry. In 2010, the gang sued fashion house Alexander McQueen over the use of the clique’s skull-with-wings “death head” design that appeared on some of McQueen’s rings, clutches, purses, scarves and dresses. The Hells Angels also named retailers Zappos.com and Saks Fifth Avenue as defendants because they sold McQueen’s infringing designs. The case was resolved when the merchandise was immediately removed from store shelves and ceased to be sold online.

The Hells Angels rigorously police its mark not only to bully those who try to bank off its image, but also to avoid its mark falling into genericism. A genericized trademark is one that originally attained legal protection, but lost its protection by becoming the common name of the product or service, and is used both by the consuming public and commercial competitors. Some examples of marks that have become generic include aspirin, escalator, heroin, and laundromat, just to name a few. If the Hells Angels were to permit the unfettered use of its name and death head design, it could potentially fall prey to becoming a generic mark. The Hells Angels solution: sue everyone who crosses the line. Fritz Clapp, the attorney for the Hells Angels Corporation told the Los Angeles Times that they “bring these lawsuits not just to punish but to educate. Somebody erroneously thought the Hells Angels was a generic term.” Amazon has already removed the shirt from its site, but the tee is still available through other online retailers. It seems like the best move for them is to pull the offending item right now and admit defeat. As attorney Clapp said in the McQueen lawsuit, “[the suit is] not about the money, its about the membership. If you had one of those rings on, a member might get really upset that you are an impostor.” Yikes, I wouldn’t want to mess with those guys!

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