The Very Not Zen Battle of the Yoga Pants

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The yoga business can be as cutthroat as any other, possibly more so, given the popularity of the sport and its relative mainstream newness. Remember, for instance, those reports that Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram, was suing Yoga to the People for copyright infringement? Yoga to the People's Greg Gumucio countersued, and the matter remains unresolved. The battle de jour this time, though, is over pants. Specifically, yoga-and-sports apparel-maker Lululemon (they do make really good pants) is accusing Calvin Klein of having ripped off a signature waistband. 

But this is not just about pants. The claim that Calvin Klein infringed on design patents for Lululemon's $98 Astro Pant has evolved into "a legal battle that could provide new ammunition for the industry to wield against copycats while bolstering Lululemon's dominant position in high-end yoga apparel," writes Ashby Jones in the Wall Street Journal. In a nine-page complaint filed in federal court in Delaware, the company claims that Calvin Klein's designs (which appear on pants that cost, comparatively, around $20), infringe on three Lululemon patents, "including one for a distinctive waistband featuring overlapping panels of fabric." Via the claim, "The Accused Products includes substantially the same waistband design elements and pant style as shown and claimed in the '644 Patent." Did we mention they are really good pants?

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Aside from our opinions on the design of said workout gear, though, or any laughs about yoga pants makers embroiled in a battle to the pants-off, Jones points out that this is a big deal in the design industry in terms of intellectual property and represents a new way of thinking "at a time when there are few legal protections for designs on apparel." Recently the design world battle was over Christian Louboutin's trademark red sole, and whether Yves Saint Laurent could put red soles on the bottoms of their own shoes. Ultimately a federal court of appeals ruled that Louboutin had that exclusive right, given some stipulations. It wasn't just about the color red on the sole, but about how they employed it, with contrasting red soles. From the decision:

We further conclude that Louboutin’s trademark, consisting of a red, lacquered outsole on a high fashion woman’s shoe, has acquired limited “secondary meaning” as a distinctive symbol that identifies the Louboutin brand.  As explained below, pursuant to Section 37 of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1119 we limit the trademark to uses in which the red outsole contrasts with the color of the remainder of the shoe. We conclude that the trademark, as thus modified, is entitled to trademark protection.  Because Louboutin sought to enjoin YSL from using a red sole as part of a monochrome red shoe, we affirm in part the order of the District Court insofar as it declined to enjoin the use of red lacquered outsoles in all situations.  However, we reverse in part the order of the District Court insofar as it purported to deny trademark protection to Louboutin’s use of contrasting red lacquered outsoles. 

Of course, brand names and logos have generally been protected as the property of the various fashion houses that create them. But where the yoga pants battle, and some of these new battles over shapes and colors, break new ground, is in the basic functionality of the item so designed. In the past, designers weren't able to protect designs like the shape of a blouse or a T-shirt, a button-down or a collar. What does that do for competition, or the fact that ideas do generate spontaneously, sometimes, and should be allowed to bear out in a competitive environment, if they are given this protection and trademark exclusivity?

Wired's Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman write that the Louboutin example as well as Apple's accusation that Samsung had copied their iPhone and iPad designs "illustrate the perils of letting our concern over copying override the need for competition." They add, of Apple's use of, essentially, the rectangle, "there is good reason to question whether a design patent over such a basic shape should ever have been granted in the first place." It's expected that Calvin Klein will fight back similarly, stating that Lululemon shouldn't have received the design patents in the first place, that that particular waistband, in fact, is not really innovative at all. 

But as with the battle between Bikram and Yoga to the People, Lululemon versus Calvin Klein demonstrates two different (in this case pants) options for people who want to do yoga—the more expensive, perhaps "original" choice, and the less expensive alternative that may or may not have been derivative. You'd think there'd be room for both in a yoga-loving world in which no one is said to be competing for the perfect down dog, but maybe business and yoga just don't mix.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.