The shoes are so recognizable that you know the brand when you see them: Smooth, rounded tops with rubber soles and a stripe that wraps around them. They're Converse's Chuck Taylor's, of course, the inexpensive, durable shoes that have been favorites in the United States for decades.
At least, that's what Converse is betting. On Tuesday Nike, who owns the All Star brand, brought a lawsuit against 31 different companies—including WalMart and Sketchers—which it claims have appropriated elements of Chuck Taylor's classic design. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in New York. Nike is also filing a separate complaint with the International Trade Commission to prevent competitors from importing the so-called "imposters" into the U.S.
Typically, shoe companies go after knockoffs because of price undercutting. Chuck Taylor's, though, are relatively cheap: Zappos sells them for just $44.95, while Google Shopping shows prices even lower. A new Air Jordan can set you back $150, if not double. On top of that, Converse sales make up just 6 percent of Nike's overall sales, according to The New York Times, or about $1.7 billion of the company's $28 billion. But the "world's largest sporting-goods company" is not just in the business of selling running shoes, they are increasingly selling fashionable items to wear every day.
For Nike, the lawsuit is aimed at protecting the shoe's authenticity, rather than the functional design. The shoes debuted in 1917 and have sold more than a billion pairs, mostly on the backs of smart movie appearances and the cool kids of almost every generation. They are, as the company claims, pretty much an "American Icon." But Converse haven't always been fashionable. The company filed for bankruptcy in the 1990s, before Nike bought it and brought it back to life, according to The New York Times.
And Nike's lawsuit is not without precedent. In April 2011, high-end shoemaker Christian Louboutin sued Yves-Saint Laurent for marketing a shoe with red soles, a feature Louboutin claimed was central to its shoe. Following a two-year legal battle, a court upheld Louboutin's copyright claim, but permitted Yves-Saint Laurent to continue selling its version that, on the basis of its monochromatic design, remained unique.
For Nike to prevail, it must prove that consumers identify design elements shared by several of the shoes—such as the rounded rubber front and black stripe—as Chuck Taylor's, rather than elements that are generically popular.