Wolverine Knock Off Knockoffs
ROCKFORD — Wolverine World Wide has filed a patent infringement suit in federal court against a New York-based footwear maker and Kohl's Department Stores Inc. alleging the two companies "willfully violated" its Merrell brand design patents by duplicating and selling three of Merrell's most popular styles.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court of Western Michigan Monday seeks a permanent injunction against Harbor Footwear Group Ltd. and Kohl's, as well as unspecified monetary damages.
At issue are knockoffs of Merrell's patented Jungle Moc, Jungle Slide and Winter Moc styles, which the suit says Harbor Footwear has "systematically and repeatedly" copied and sold to Kohl's under the GBX brand as Rainer, Trail Clog and Trail Sport, respectively.
Harbor Footwear — a direct competitor of Wolverine — "has engaged in the manufacture, use, offer for sale and marketing of a line of footwear products under its GBX brand, which are strikingly and materially similar in appearance" to the Merrell Jungle Moc, Jungle Slide and Winter Moc line of products, the suit states.
"We included Kohl's in this suit because we believe it is the obligation of retailers and their buyers to ensure that they are dealing with reputable footwear companies that develop their own styles and patterns," said Jacques Lavertue, president of Wolverine's Outdoor Group.
"We have a duty to our investors, retailers and customers to protect our proprietary designs and innovative technology, which serve as the backbone of our continued growth."
Wolverine alleges that Harbor Footwear has been knocking off the Jungle Moc line since at least October 2002, and the Jungle Slide and Winter Moc lines since at least July 2003.
Scott Sible, general manager of Merrell, said the company knew Harbor Footwear was producing and selling copycat Merrell styles for quite some time, and it isn't the first company to try to duplicate a Wolverine brand.
"We've successfully negotiated with a number of companies on this issue," Sible said. "We try to do it the gentleman's way first. We try to work it out. Basically, this is a last resort for us."
Wolverine has tried to negotiate an agreement with Harbor Footwear, but to no avail, he said.
The company is asking the court to order a disgorgement of Harbor and Kohl's profits for infringement of each of the three patents and also is asking the court to order an accounting of Wolverine's damages and the profits realized by both Harbor and Kohl's relating to sales of the copied footwear designs.
Wolverine's lawsuit also claims unfair competition.
"Harbor and Kohl's have unfairly competed with Wolverine in Michigan by systematically and repeatedly copying Wolverine's patented design inventions, imitating the distinctive appearance of multiple Merrell footwear products, thereby creating a likelihood of confusing the public as to the source, sponsorship, or approval of its products, and unfairly drawing business away from Wolverine by otherwise conducting its trade and commerce in an unfair, unconscionable and deceptive manner in violation of the Michigan common law of unfair competition," the suit states.
Wolverine alleges that the actions of both Harbor and Kohl's have caused and will continue to cause "irreparable injury" to Wolverine "in an amount which cannot be fully and adequately determined by Wolverine."
Wolverine acquired Merrell in 1997 when the brand was generating annual sales of about $22 million. In its complaint, the company points out that it has invested significant time, energy, money and effort into designing, developing, promoting and protecting the brand since then.
According to Wolverine, Merrell is now "widely recognized as one of the world's leading designers of technically superior performance outdoor and active lifestyle footwear," with 2003 sales exceeding $220 million and more than 8 million pairs sold worldwide.
Today, Merrell holds more than 170 design patents and another 120 are pending approval.
Wolverine marked its 11th consecutive quarter of growth in the just passed quarter, reporting record third quarter revenue of $260.9 million. Merrell's global sales were up nearly 19 percent, with gains in every region. Merrell's revenues from Europe and international distributors were particularly strong, and U.S. and Canada sales also were up double digits, according to the company.