The maker of Jesus Up apparel is discussing a settlement with Jesus Jeans. (Jesus Up)
Italian Apparel Company Registered 'Jesus' as Trademark, Protects It Devoutly
Inspired by his time leading a singles ministry in Virginia Beach, Va., Michael Julius Anton came up with an idea for a clothing line that he thought was catchy and unique--"Jesus Surfed."
He was on good ground with "Surfed." But when he went to register the trademark, he found someone had beaten him to Jesus.
In a branding coup of biblical proportions, an Italian jeans maker persuaded the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2007 to register the word "Jesus" as a trademark, giving the company exclusive rights in America to sell clothing bearing the name of Christianity's central figure.
Since then, the owner of the trademark, Jesus Jeans, has clamped down on Jesus-themed apparel, pitting its litigators against more than a dozen other startup clothing lines it claims appropriated "Jesus" without the company's blessing. The company doesn't have a trademark on images of Jesus, just the word.
Before taking on Jesus Surfed, Jesus Jeans objected to "Jesus First," "Sweet Jesus," and "Jesus Couture," among others, which abandoned their trademark efforts. In some cases, when met with resistance, Jesus Jeans warned that it could sue for damages.
Attorneys for Jesus Jeans say they are just trying to protect the value of their brand--no different from Nike's claim over the winged goddess of victory.
"If somebody--small church or even a big church--wants to use 'Jesus' for printing a few T-shirts, we don't care," said Domenico Sindico, the general counsel for intellectual property at BasicNet SpA, a publicly traded company based in Turin, Italy, that owns Jesus Jeans and the Kappa sportswear brand.
But when companies like Mr. Anton's seek to commercialize their products, "that's a concern," he said.
BasicNet first applied for a "Jesus" trademark registration in the U.S. in 1999, but it took another eight years for the trademark office to grant it. The Jesus Jean trademark covers clothing and sportswear, including jackets, vests, shirts, pants and belts.
The trademark office at first said the company's application was similar to other registered trademarks.
But it ultimately dropped its opposition after Jesus Jeans argued that its fashion goods wouldn't be confused with other trademarks that used the name of Jesus "because of the religious or personal reference."
Piety wasn't exactly evident in Jesus Jeans's first ad campaign in the 1970s, under different ownership. The spots featured the back of a woman in skimpy denim shorts under the slogan, "He who loves me follows me."
The ads scandalized many in Italy and were denounced by the Catholic Church.
Maurizio Vitale, an Italian entrepreneur and original owner of Jesus Jeans, thought of the name during a trip to New York City when he walked by a theater marquee for "Jesus Christ Superstar," according to Mr. Sindico.
"He decided Jesus could be used in a nonreligious context by representing the will to rebel and refusal to conform," Mr. Sindico said.
The brand faded from the marketplace after Mr. Vitale died in 1987. BasicNet acquired Jesus Jeans in the 1990s through a bankruptcy and relaunched the brand in 2011 with a mellower image.
The company's attempts to trademark "Jesus" have been turned down in pockets of the world. Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have all refused the trademark, according to Mr. Sindico. So did China, Switzerland, Australia, Norway and Cuba, he said.
In 2003, Britain's patent office rejected its application as "morally offensive to the public," but Jesus Jeans registered "Jesus" through the European Union as a "Community Trademark," valid across the European Union.
Intellectual property lawyers say there is nothing in U.S. law that would prevent a company from claiming exclusive ownership of centuries-old names.
Some are dubious about the likelihood of consumer confusion between companies like Jesus Surfed and Jesus Jeans, a brand little-known to Americans.
But even if a company doesn't want to back down, "it may not be worth the money to fight," said Marc Reiner, an intellectual-property lawyer in New York.
Jesus Jeans says it is planning to ramp up U.S. distribution after relaunching the brand in Italy with a marketing campaign linking the brand to ideas of "solidarity" and a "peaceful society."
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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal