6 copyright infringements even more bananas than Uniqlo vs Shein

Uniqlo is the latest brand to sue for trademark infringement against Shein. We highlight six occasions when famous brands were caught stealing.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

The business world loves a good legal bust-up, especially when it comes to copyright laws. Today, trademark infringements are a common occurrence as firms struggle to safeguard their creations in the information age.

Shein is one the biggest offenders. The fast-fashion firm has faced numerous infringement suits. Its latest opponent is Uniqlo, which alleges the brand stole its viral ‘banana’ bag. The Japanese retailer has demanded Shein cease sales of all “imitation products” and pay reparations for lost sales.

Below, we run through some of the best-known Intellectual Property (IP) infringement cases of the past decade, and explain how you can protect your brand materials from theft.

1. Shein vs H&M

Uniqlo’s latest suit isn’t the first time Shein has found itself in hot water over alleged plagiarism. Last summer, H&M filed a lawsuit against the fast fashion retailer for copyright infringement, according to court documents filed in Hong Kong.

Bloomberg reported that the filing included photos of H&M items, such as swimwear and sweaters, as “evidence” that Shein had stolen its designs. Shein, which produces roughly 500 pieces of clothing per worker per day, declined to comment on the accusations.

Another court filing against Shein, this time from a host of independent designers, claimed the clothing giant was using a “secretive algorithm” to identify trending art and reproduce the designs for speedy upload and sale on the brand’s global marketplace.

2. Vanilla Ice vs David Bowie & Queen

We’ve all experienced it. You hear the distinctive opening bass line and start to sing “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie, only to find that you’re actually listening to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.”

Apart from wrong-footing thousands of listeners every year, Vanilla Ice also committed an actual crime with this creation: he forgot to ask both parties for permission to use the riff.

Vanilla Ice’s weak defence that he had changed the final chord to make it unique quickly melted. Under pressure from Queen’s legal team, this time financial, the singer was forced to pay up. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

3. Apple vs Microsoft

Tech enthusiasts may remember the saga of the Apple vs Microsoft trademark suit. Two of the biggest tech companies in the world collided in the late 80s when a teenaged Apple went up against its greatest rival.

According to Apple, Bill Gates’ brainchild had stolen the graphical user interface (GUI) of their newly-released Macintosh OS, without having permission or a licence to do so.

But what appeared to be an open and shut case was then muddied by the revelation that Apple had permitted Microsoft to use design elements of the Macintosh GUI in Windows. Its legal department just hadn’t been told. Cue the court ruling against Apple in 1992.

4. Starbucks vs Obsidian Group

You’ve heard of the ‘Frappuccino’, but what about ‘Freddoccino’? We’re guessing not. But these two near identically-named drinks created a subpoenaed spillage when Starbucks took legal action against Obsidian Group, the firm behind the Coffee Culture chain, in 2016.

Arguing that Coffee Culture was passing off the Freddoccino as its own creamy concoctions, the global coffeehouse came down hard, arguing that the latter had caused ‘irreparable damage’ to Starbucks and its 35,771 stores.

Despite renaming its drink ‘The Freddo’ in a bid to appease Starbucks’ legal team, the coffee giant persisted with legal action. The outcome of the lawsuit remains undetermined.

5. M&S vs Aldi

Most Brits will recall the infamous case of Colin the Copyrighted Caterpillar. For decades, Marks & Spencer’s insect-shaped chocolate roulade has been a staple at many children’s parties and office treat tables. Conveniently, budget rival Aldi then rolled out its own version of the cake, Cuthbert.

In what became known as the supermarket cake wars, M&S sued Aldi in 2021, complaining that Cuthbert was now being invited to more appearances at picnics than Colin.

The court case was eventually settled in 2022, with Cuthbert returning to shelves with a slightly tweaked appearance last spring. Since then, various copycats have joined the army, including Tesco’s Curly, Asda’s Clyde, and Waitrose’s Cecil.

6. James Dyson vs Hoover

Some of the most bitterly fought court cases relate to patents. Patents are an exclusive right granted on inventions. They tend to be filed by tech companies, and can be very costly applications to complete.

In 2000, the innovative appliance brand Dyson sued Hoover for infringing its patent on the bagless Dyson vacuum (cue lots of puns from news outlets about being taken to the cleaners).

So what was the outcome? As you might expect from the vacuum cleaner brand, Dyson cleaned up. Hoover was instructed by a judge to pay £4m in damages; the highest ever court award in a UK patent case at the time.

What is copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement occurs when someone takes your IP and tries passing it off as their own. This can include things like copying your work, distributing it, publicly displaying it, or creating derivative works from it.

How do I register for copyright?

There isn’t a register of copyright works in the UK. Instead, your work is automatically copyrighted as soon as it is created and shared, such as by writing it down or recording it.

However, most brands, when they register their business, will also register a trademark for their company name or branding. This adds another layer of protection to key brand materials such as words, logos, or slogans.

Trademarks are especially smart in today’s world. Even AI business name generators have caused concern that the internet content they ‘scrape’ to come up with their suggestions might make use of copyrighted materials.

Even if an AI-generated name is not identical to your trademark, it could still be guilty of trademark dilution, which means it could cause confusion among consumers.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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