Just a few months after sending Urban Outfitters a letter asking that it stop selling all of its Navajo-branded products, the Navajo Nation has sued the retailer for infringing its trademark — and its sole right to make and market products under its tribal name.
Urban Outfitters responded to the letter, which the nation sent last October after Urban started selling tribal print underwear named Navajo Hipster Panties (among other things), by keeping the products on its website and in stores, but removing the word Navajo from all of the items’ product descriptions. But The Associated Press reports that changing the name of the products didn’t satisfy the Navajo Nation’s claims on its copyright, and its lawyers believe they can convince a judge to bar Urban Outfitters from ever using its name again. The suit also seeks unspecified monetary damages.
And it looks like the Nation has a chance of winning both — after all, it has the law on its side. In addition to have roughly 10 registered trademarks of its name that cover everything from clothing to household products, it also can rely on The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which makes it illegal to sell products claiming to be produced by the Navajo people when they’re actually made in a factory in Bahrain.
Urban Outfitters may have only set out to make an homage to the Navajo and other American Indian tribes with its products, but it could end up paying for violating federal law. And New York-based fashion law specialists Susan Scafidi and Joseph Murphy, Jr., both agree that Urban could lose big time.
“That’s what disgusts me about this situation,” Murphy said. “I, like many people, thought it would have been resolved. But apparently Urban Outfitters declined to write the big apology and may have to write the big check.”
The Navajo Nation’s objections to traditionally styled beaded earrings or a hacienda bag that don’t carry the tribe’s name are much less likely to succeed, Scafidi said. But she said it shows a pattern that could influence a jury, which the tribe has requested in its lawsuit.
“Imagine all of those products piled on a table in the courtroom, looking like Santa Fe meets New York’s notorious Canal Street or Beijing’s Silk Market,” she wrote in an email.
And to think: None of this would have happened if Urban hadn’t started selling these insensitive products in the first place.