Artistic freedom outweighs trademark protection

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Judgment of LG Frankfurt – case nos. 2-06 O 532/23 and 2-06 O 533/23

In a ruling from September 19, 2023, delivered in response to a trademark infringement, Frankfurt’s regional court – the Landgericht (LG) Frankfurt – deemed artistic freedom to be more important than protecting a registered trademark when it rejected an urgent motion for injunctive relief brought by a manufacturer of luxury handbags (case ref.: 2-06 O 532/23 and 2-06 O 533/23).

Trademark law is a core branch of industrial and intellectual property law. By registering their trademarks, companies are able to protect themselves against copycats. A mark’s characteristic features are one of the biggest contributors to greater brand recognition among consumers. That is why it is crucial to ensure that one’s brand is properly protected, explains a spokesperson for trademark and IP law at MTR Legal Rechtsanwälte.

Limits of trademark protection

At the same time, trademark protection has its limits. Indeed, even characteristic features of a registered mark can potentially be used by third parties, a fact which one manufacturer of luxury handbags had to learn the hard way.

The manufacturer in question had ensured that its handbags were protected under trademark law. A fashion label, whose products include skirts, dresses, and bags, would later make use of characteristic features of these trademarked handbags and presented them at a fashion show and on social networks. The manufacturer of the luxury handbags responded by filing an urgent motion with the LG Frankfurt, demanding that the fashion label be prohibited from showcasing the relevant products.

Court dismisses urgent motion

This motion was subsequently rejected by the LG Frankfurt, which held that the handbag manufacturer could not invoke trademark protections in this instance. The court thus upheld the arguments presented by the fashion label, which, appealing to artistic freedom and freedom of expression, claimed that the products and its use of the defining characteristics of the luxury handbags were meant to draw attention to female clichés about women being gifted these kinds of handbags by so-called “sugar daddies”.

The court ruled that a balance had to be struck in this case between trademark protection and artistic freedom. It stated that the fashion label had wanted its production to highlight that women are degraded by men to the status of objects and viewed as social accessories. According to the label, women can emancipate themselves by taking on precisely this role and using men as a “human bank” for their own purposes.

Case-by-case decision

The LG Frankfurt ultimately concluded that it is possible for third-party use of a brand to be protected in the name of artistic freedom. With this in mind, the court drew attention to the deliberately exaggerated social representation at the fashion show, which the LG Frankfurt found was covered by artistic freedom as a whole, particularly as the applicant’s brand was not vilified by the portrayal and was only part of the overall production.

In the end, the balance between trademark rights and artistic freedom always comes down to the individual case. MTR Legal Rechtsanwälte’s areas of expertise include trademark law, as well as intellectual and industrial property law more broadly.


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