Gucci Gambit: Of Family Names and Trademark Games

Luxury, lust, murder, and Italian leather -- given the Gucci family history, it's no wonder there's a blood-red stripe running down the middle of the familiar green-red-green ribbon logo.  But while blood may be thicker than water, trademark law is another matter, and the latest scions of the Gucci family to challenge the exclusive corporate ownership of their famous name have once again been unsuccessful.

Jennifer Puddefoot Gucci, ex-wife of the late Paolo Gucci, and her daughter Gemma Gucci comprise the Anglo-American branch of the family.  Neither is a designer.  In hopes of trading on their famous name, however, they entered into a series of licensing agreements with the help of their agent Edward Litwak, who worked to brand everything from coffee and gelato to linens and handbags with variations on their names and initials, with a few green-red-green stripes and a horsebit or two thrown in for good measure.  Never mind that the U.S. Trademark Office had already rejected the women's attempts to register some of these variations.  Predictably the Gucci company, which is owned by French luxury conglomerate PPR, objected.

Judge Richard Berman of the Southern District of New York yesterday enjoined Jennifer and Gemma from any future commercial use of the Gucci name -- unless they develop reputation, skill, and knowledge related to the products or services in question.  (While the same court a couple of decades ago permitted Paolo Gucci, their ex-husband and father respectively, to use his name in trade provided that he take certain precautions to avoid consumer confusion, he'd already been intimately involved with the family business.)  
In one way, this puts Mrs. and Ms. Gucci in a worse position than most individuals, as the average person can use her name on goods and services and then worry about developing a reputation later.  On the other hand, if you're born a McDonald, it's highly unlikely that you'll be able to use your name to sell hamburgers.  The U.S. Trademark Office does not register marks that are "primarily merely a surname," but there's still plenty of room for family feuds -- or just plain tough luck in the birth certificate department. 

Still, it's hard to feel sorry for either Jennifer or Gemma in this case, given that they apparently had little involvement with many of the goods that attempted to trade on their famous surname, but were well aware that the logos and designs called to mind the luxury goods company.  In addition, they admitted in court that products labeled Puddefoot or Mairs (Gemma's husband's last name) would generate little interest.  

So, what's next for the freeriding Gucci gals?  Well, Gemma did have a bit more luck with a German court and the use of her name on a European jewelry line.  Barring an appeal in the U.S., however, it's a retreat to their own professional fields (originally music for Jenny and finance for Gemma), an effort to take a few leatherworking classes, or perhaps an attempt to succeed without reliance on a famous name.  Hey, it worked for Nicholas Cage.

Interested in reading more of the multigenerational Gucci saga?  Check out Sara Gay Forden's The House of Gucci (2000).