When Their Trademarks Are Used, the Hells Angels Resort Not to Violence but to High-Profile Lawsuits
From The Fashion Law:
It is common knowledge that the Hells Angels logo and the club’s other insignia are utterly off-limits to all but a select group of individuals. In the “rule-bound world of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club,” investigative reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, stated in 2013, “only full members are permitted to wear the provocative death’s-head patch or the two words of the club’s name, which, like the logo,” are protected by law across the globe. Patches cannot be bought. They may only be earned, and oftentimes, that takes years.
Fontana is an arid, highly-populated inland expanse in San Bernardino County, California bordering on the San Gabriel Mountains. It was here that the Hells Angels got its start. A handful of young World War II veterans, “bored with the tedium of civilian life,” came together in the late 1940s to drink, ride cheaply-acquired motorcycles thanks to a post-war surplus, and generally, pass the time back on U.S. soil. In the process, these men – many in their late teens – laid the foundation for what would become “a uniquely American subculture of hardened individualism, fierce fraternity and contempt for society’s mores,” as Kovaleski so aptly put it.
In the decade that followed the Fontana chapter’s founding, it would be joined by a number of other, similar groups. According to the New York Times, “Throughout the 1950s, Hells Angels groups spread out across California, eventually uniting into a confederation with each club maintaining its own autonomy.” The now-notorious club has since extended much further than the bounds of California to include independently-operated charters that dot the globe – from Southern California and Manhattan to Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Sydney, just to name a few.
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Despite a lack of clarity about the group’s numbers, at least one aspect of its history is relatively clear; it is littered with legal matters that speak to a vast empire of drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, racketeering and extortion. If court dockets across the U.S. are to be believed, where members of this organization go, violent crime tends to follow.
But look beyond the headline-making Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act indictments, jury verdicts, and lengthy prison sentences, and you will see that over the past two decades or so, a different type of lawsuit has come to be associated with the group: intellectual property litigation.
As the stories go, if a Hells Angel member “sees somebody with a Hells Angel patch that doesn’t belong on his back,” he will rip it off and bestow upon him a brutal, often-bloody lesson. “The Angels have always dealt swiftly with fakes, phonies – imposters,” Intellectual Property Magazine wrote a few years ago. “That’s one of the reasons why the patch is so important – it’s a mark of authenticity.”
If the 70-year old club learns of a company making use of its legally – and sometimes physically – protected logos, its members take a markedly different approach; they take legal action.
Court filings across the country evidence this. In 1992, for instance, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (“HAMC”) filed suit against Marvel Entertainment Group over a Hells Angels-themed comic book. In the spring of 2006, the group took on a division of Walt Disney over the PG-13 rated film “Wild Hogs,” a comedy about middle-aged bikers, starring Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy. In 2011, they went up against Alexander McQueen, Saks Fifth Avenue and Zappos.com, taking issue with the manufacture and sale of handbags, jewelry and garments bearing designs that were – in their eyes – far too similar to the club’s skull-and-wings death’s-head design.
In all of those lawsuits and the frenzy of others like them, Fritz Clapp, counsel for the HAMC – the elite group of motorcycle enthusiasts or the vicious gang that uses violence and intimidation to further its criminal objectives, depending on whose definition you adopt, the group’s or the U.S. Department of Justice’s – pointed to federal trademarks registered to the HAMC, some dating back to the 1970s, and called infringement.
Link to the rest at The Fashion Law
PG will note that the websites of Hell’s Angels MC and Hells Angels Media.com demonstrate a unique design sensibility bristling with evidence of a distinctive artistic oeuvre which telegraphs aggressive defense of the organizations’ intellectual property.