It's a funny business, the t-shirt game. One minute you have a best-selling t-shirt, featuring original artwork from a celebrated British artist, the next, you're facing down legal threats for a trademark violation. Okay, that's very specific, but that's pretty much what has happened to us over the past three months. The astute among you may have noticed that we stopped selling our 'Just a Ride' t-shirts, and may have been wondering why? Wonder, no longer. Gather round the fire, and let Uncle Shwinn tell you a story. A silly, silly ridiculous story.
Back in July '16, I received a rather strange email, featuring a mixture of caps-locked writing and bad spelling, inferring that THTC was in violation of another company's trademark. Being a simple, law-abiding chap, I decided to open a dialogue.
We began receiving correspondence from a company called Hel Manley Ltd, detailing that they had filed an exclusive trademark on the phrase, 'It's Just A Ride.' Now, our product, also titled, 'It's Just A Ride' was created by one of THTC's newest collaborators, the wonderful Ed Hicks, under a concept brief from Gav.
This trademark covered usage over apparel and footwear. We decided to check out the products upon which we were allegedly infringing. As soon as Hel Manyley's own brand website APN (A Public Nuisance) had loaded up, we were greeted by an eye-bleedy mess of products that couldn't be more different from THTC. We scrolled down to the 'It's Just A Ride' products. It took myself and Gav the better part of a day to stop mouthing, 'Are you f***ing serious?'
Then we read the product description, and we knew we had reach peak ridiculousness. It cited the Comedian Bill Hicks as the inspiration behind the product line. It even includes the phrase, 'Don't take life too seriously.'
Spot the difference - APN's and our t's for comparison
A trademark serves an important function. It is filed for protection of a particular product - to ensure that for marketing purposes, consumers aren't confused by similar sounding products - or ripped off by imitators. Basically indicating a brand origin. Usually, phrases that are in common parlance aren't granted a trademark until they generate enough secondary association with the brand that's filing them - for example, Nike's 'Just Do it', where the company filed the trademark after their first 1988 international campaign featuring the slogan, had dropped. Even then, such a phrase was pretty unique in the context of what it was selling.
THTC's and APN/Hel Manley's brands couldn't be any more different. It seemed a crazy position we'd found ourselves in. We wondered to ourselves - how could we be seen as a threat to his business? Well, of course, we wanted to resolve this amicably. We arranged a phone call with the CEO of Hel Manley. We didn't really know what to expect. In our 17 years, we've never even come close to being accused of copying or infringing on original work - and even the folks who've copied aspects of our designs, we just leave. After all, imitation is the highest form of flattery, right? People buy our stuff because it's THTC - and everything that goes with that.
Here's Stolli Clothing nicking our George Bush and Son's design - and Goldie wearing the authentic thing. We didn't really care that much - apart from that Stolli use non-organic cotton and don't have transparent sourcing
Our phone call with Hel Manley was more infuriating than productive, with the accusing party refusing to tell us what he wanted from us, other than us coming to an agreement to pay him royalties. We decided to get a lawyer involved who, optimistically, told us that we had a strong case - the text was used both in the context of a quote and not brand origin. But having a good legal argument is one thing. Having the time and resources to fight that battle, is another. Even before it would go to court we were looking at hundreds of pounds in legal costs. We have to pick and choose our battles. So we chose to cease production. Slogan trademark law is murky as hell on both sides of the Atlantic, and while we felt justifiably angry we had to breathe a bit of the very mantra we were looking to protect - 'It's Just A Ride'.
On our phone call, Gav asked 'what do you think Bill Hicks would have thought about someone trademarking a phrase of his, and holding an ethical hemp producing company to ransom?' The question obviously flustered him, as we both listened to 45 seconds of stuttering, during which he tried desperately to form a moral standpoint. We'd hope Bill wouldn't care that hundreds of companies were using his words to earn a buck, being the libertarian he was. He'd probably have a problem with someone trying to effectively carve out part of his estate for themselves, though.
But it's not a story with a sad ending - we have rejigged the design to get around Hel Manley's trademark. The use of the phrase, 'It's Just A Ride' should not be the exclusive domain of anyone with the exception of, perhaps, Bill Hicks himself.
This episode got us thinking - should we protect all our slogans? Should we trademark our most famous designs? We think of it like this - if anyone wants to copy the THTC brand, create and deal ethical streetwear, do cool projects with amazing NGOs from across the world, and support some of the greatest musical artists ever - go for it. You'd help us make the world a better place.
By the way, it might interest you to know that any profits from Bill Hicks' current estate goes to support the wildlife foundation he set up - check out it's website.
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