The latest battle of the handbag, aka the high-stakes lawsuit brought by French luxury design house Hermès in the US against the artist Mason Rothschild over his ‘MetaBirkin’ NFT collection was hardly going to go unnoticed. Not only did the subject matter offer great headline and photo opportunities for business, tech, crypto, art, fashion and legal news outlets alike, but there were important principles at stake for the burgeoning world of NFTs and luxury brands.
Some say Hermès took a risk filing such a dispute to be heard before a jury and taking on the so-called artistic community. However, its success in protecting its brand was a legal and reputational triumph setting a precedent for other brands and NFT creators in the relationship between digital art, NFTs and the physical fashion it purports to replicate.
The Birkin handbag
Hermès was established in 1837 and, inter alia, they are known for designing and producing the iconic and highly sought after Birkin handbag. The Birkin handbag has been synonymous with high fashion, exclusivity and wealth since it burst onto the cultural scene in 1984 with its value being seen through the two-year-long waiting list and the hundreds of thousands of pounds each one can fetch at auction. Unsurprisingly, Hermès owns trademark rights for the “Hermès” and “Birkin” marks as well as trade dress rights in the design of the handbag.
The artist Rothschild, whose real name is Sonny Estival, began selling ‘MetaBirkin’ NFTs in 2021 that portrayed the highly coveted Birkin handbag adorned with various eccentric items like fur, tusks and even a Santa hat, rather than the typical leather of the genuine Hermès handbag. He intended this as a comment “on the animal cruelty inherent in Hermès’ manufacture of its ultra-expensive leather handbags”. The NFT collection proved a hit with fans shown through the range reportedly making over $1 million for Rothschild through online sales.
See you in court
Hermès filed a lawsuit in January 2022, arguing that consumers only purchased Rothschild’s NFTs because the Birkin name wrongly led them to think the product was endorsed by Hermès.
In response, Rothschild argued that his ‘MetaBirkin’ NFT project was an “artistic experiment” that commented on society’s adoration of luxury goods and its displays of wealth. He adopted a fair use defence in line with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, referring to the example of Andy Warhol’s depictions of Campbell’s soup cans.
Furthermore, Rothschild relied on the ‘Rogers’ legal test from the landmark Rogers v. Grimaldi case from 1989 that allows trademarks to be used without permission being granted so long as a) the title of the work has some artistic relevance to the underlying work and b) that the title is not explicitly misleading as to the source of the content of the work. However, Hermès claimed that these NFTs were not only created purely for financial gain and not protected under free speech as an artistic expression but they also diluted the Birkin name and violated Hermès’ trademarks. Hermès further argued the ‘MetaBirkin’ experiment had damaged its future prospects in the NFT world where other luxury brands are already active.
On February 8, the jury in the Southern District of New York reached its finding that Rothschild’s unauthorised versions of the Birkin handbag constituted trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and cybersquatting, since Rothschild used the ‘MetaBirkins.com’ domain name that was deemed confusingly similar to that of the luxury fashion house. Hermès was awarded US $133,000 in damages.
Interestingly, the jury also found that Rothschild’s unauthorised use of the Birkin handbag as an NFT was not a protected form of speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as it was explicitly misleading to consumers. The jury found that the ‘MetaBirkin’ was more akin to consumer goods, which are subject to trademark regulations, than free speech-protected works of art, and that Rothschild did this to profit from Hermès’ goodwill.
NFT legal precedent
Whilst Hermes can now claim that it fiercely defends its brand from replicas in both the real and virtual worlds, this lawsuit also has implications for the wider world of NFTs. The ruling has been reported as a blow to creators looking to use online space to sell replications of established brand products for financial gain, representing a win for IP protection for luxury brands in general. One headline even went so far as to report that the judgment meant NFTs are not art.
Clearly, there will be further cases in this new frontier where technology and art – and the legal principles to be applied – collide. Meantime, this case offers various other lessons and consideration points. Commentary in established media was, unsurprisingly, more pro-Hermès than the spectrum of debate on social media, where the David v Goliath battle was sometimes viewed more sceptically. It highlights not only the threat to big brands but also the potential for a new realm of customers that this new technology can bring.