WHAT’S IN A NAME…Appellate Court Reverses Injunction Prohibiting Joseph Abboud From Using His Name Finding No Breach of Contract or Trademark Infringement.

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In a long and hard fought battle, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has given renowned fashion designer, Joseph Abboud, a chance to reclaim his name.

Issuing a sweeping injunction in June 2008, a Southern District of New York court enjoined Abboud from using his name to sell, market or promote his own business, goods and/or services, finding Abboud’s intended use constituted a breach of contract and would constitute trademark infringement. The Second Circuit, in J.A. Apparel Corp. v. Abboud, et al No. 08-3181-cv (Second Cir.) found here reversed and remanded.

J.A. Apparel Corporation (“JA”), a former joint venture of Joseph Abboud, sued the designer in federal court alleging breach of contract, trademark infringement, and related claims over Abboud’s plans to use his name in the marketing and advertising of his then new JAZZ line, which he intended to promote using with such phrases as “a new composition by designer Joseph Abboud.”

Underlying the dispute, in 2000 JA entered into a sales agreement with Abboud, paying Abboud 65 million dollars for the exclusive rights to the ABBOUD label and related JOSEPH ABBOUD trademarks. While Abboud claimed the agreement only transferred rights in the ABBOUD trademarks but not the rights in his name, JA asserted the contract sold both the trademarks and the exclusive rights to use the Joseph Abboud name for commercial purposes. The district court ruled Abboud had unambiguously conveyed to J.A. all of Abboud’s rights to use his personal name, trademarks, and trade names for commercial purposes and also found Abboud’s planned use of his name would constitute trademark infringement, as it was likely to cause consumer confusion.

Vacating the injunction, the Second Circuit remanded the case, ruling the district court: 1) erred in ruling the sales agreement unambiguously conveyed all of Abboud’s rights to use his name commercially; and 2) erred in rejecting Abboud’s fair use claim as a defense to trademark infringement. The appellate court specifically found that given the conflicting interpretations of the sales agreement, the district court should have considered the parties’ extrinsic evidence to more fully understand the parties’ intent and that the district court should have examined Abboud’s actual or proposed use to resolve his fair use defense.

COMMENTARY: This case highlights the risks inherent in licensing or selling a brand name which also happens to be an individual’s name. Because the parties failed to clearly and precisely define the scope of their agreement, Joseph Abboud stands to lose the right to his very valuable name. Granted, he was paid 65 million dollars, which may seem like more than adequate compensation….but how much is your name worth, and what would it take for you to sell it? As some might say, “priceless.” Take the time to get it right.

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