Almost 3 years ago, Beyoncé’s legal team, troubled with a new brand that had popped up in the market, filed a lawsuit. Consumers are likely to believe that Beyoncé was in some way tied to an array of bridal-themed wares with the word Feyoncé on them, the 37-year old music mega-star’s attorneys argued in the federal trademark infringement and dilution, and unfair competition suit they filed in April 2016 in a New York federal court against Andre Maurice and Leana Lopez. Even if consumers are not confused by the similar-looking, similar-sounding products, they claimed, the Feyoncé products dilute the value of Beyoncé’s wildly valuable name and so, the defendants should be forced to pull them from the market once and for all.
Following a back-and-forth before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York centering on the defendants’ alleged scheme to “willfully trade upon the goodwill and notoriety of Beyoncé, arguably one of the most famous musical artists and entrepreneurs in the world” by offering for sale “infringing merchandise bearing the Feyoncé mark,” as Beyoncé’s complaint asserted, Judge Alison Nathan handed the Lemonade singer a sweeping loss this fall.
In an October 2018 decision, Judge Nathan stated that while the Beyoncé and Feyoncé trademarks are undeniably similar, they have markedly different connotations. “Feyoncé is a play on words, which could dispel consumer confusion that might otherwise arise due to its facial similarity to the Beyoncé mark,” she stated. And more than that, “Many purchasers of Feyoncé products are, in fact, engaged … evidence [that] suggests that consumers are understanding the pun, rather than confusing the brands.”
In short: consumers are not likely to believe that Beyoncé is co-signing the Feyoncé products, the judge held, tossing out Beyoncé’s trademark claims, and ordering both sides to discuss a possible resolution for the remaining claims.
As of this week, Beyoncé moved to dismiss the rest of her claims and the lawsuit as a whole, presumably, the parties’ settlement negotiations were fruitful.
The glaring issue that looms here, now that the case is resolved, is that the market for Feyoncé products is far from kaput. Instead of petering out as the case slowly moved towards a resolution, the defendants’ Feyoncé-adorned tank tops and t-shirts actually spurred an entire cottage industry, one that stretches far beyond their initial apparel offerings to include a plethora of products being offered by individual sellers on Etsy and Amazon, and even by retail giants like Walmart.
Missguided, the UK-based mass-market retailer, for instance, introduced a Feyoncé t-shirt of its own in the wake of the suit, an attempt to bank on the growing demand for the trendy term. Teen retailer Francesca’s was (until recently) selling greeting cards which a Feyoncé graphic on the front of them. Not be outdone, Walmart – the world’s largest retailer – is currently offering up its own unisex Feyoncé t-shirts.
Meanwhile, on marketplaces, such as Amazon and Etsy, consumers can choose from a truly vast trove of apparel and accessories, including t-shirts, sweatshirts, swimwear, tote bags, sandals, and baseball caps, with the word Feyoncé on them. There are also matching “Feyoncé” and “Bae-Z” mugs, wine glasses, and beer pints, photo booth props, stickers, and custom balloons being offered by individual sellers.
The popularity of the Feyoncé designs has also resulted in at least one new trademark application for registration for “Feyoncé and Bae-Z,” an application that was filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) for use on glassware. As for the defendants, themselves, they still have a pending trademark application for registration for Feyoncé for use on apparel, which has been on hold with the USPTO since the start of the lawsuit and is expected to proceed with the registration process in the near future.
It is difficult not attribute at least some of the noticeable spike in Feyoncé merch to the sheer volume of press that has come hand-in-hand with the highly-watched lawsuit that Beyoncé initiated a few years ago. In fact, as indicated by no small number of comments coinciding with Beyoncé v. Feyoncé related articles and social media posting, the widespread media attention that highlighted the case brought Feyoncé to the forefront of many otherwise unfamiliar consumers’ minds and enabled the pool of potential consumers to expand. News about the lawsuit helped spur something of an industry for the catchy wares.
“Where can I get one of the shirts?,” asked one social media user, in response to a tweet about the case.
With this in mind, there is a chance that as part of the parties’ agreement Beyoncé may be pocketing a monetary sum from the defendants in exchange for agreeing to drop the rest of her case against them, but the terms of any potential settlement are confidential making this a purely hypothetical outcome. However, what is not just speculation is that there are a whole lot more Feyoncé-emblazoned wares being offered for sale than there were before the case started.
Giving an alleged infringer a bigger platform that ever before by naming them as a defendant can be the double-edged sword that comes with filing a headline-making lawsuit, after all.
*The case is Knowles-Carter et al v. Maurice et al, 1:16-cv-02532 (SDNY).