Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Shoe styles spur black frat, sorority suit

Converse sees no trademark

By MICHAEL GRABELL / The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS - Stop at the shops at Big T Plaza, the jumbo buffet of urban fashion in south Oak Cliff, and you'll find racks of sneakers, candy-colored in the latest here-today-gone-tomorrow trends.

You'll also find hanging out there people who are members of Alpha Phi Alpha, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta or other historically black fraternities or sororities – people with a sense of pride and tradition in what the Greek organizations represent.

But when Converse tried to blend tradition and trend, it strained a tendon of deep attachment in the black community.

Six historically black fraternities and sororities are suing Converse in Dallas federal court for using their colors and founding years on sneakers without permission.

"We just felt like we had been overlooked," said Sam Hamilton, chairman of the organizations' Council of Presidents.

A Converse spokeswoman did not address the allegations, but she said in a prepared statement that the company wants to resolve the matter. The company has said the fraternity colors and founding years aren't trademarked.

The lawsuit creates a pumice-on-sandpaper sort of friction.

Sneakers have come to mean more than footwear to many young black men and women. They convey attitude and identity. And Converse is owned by Nike, which makes the hugely popular Air Force 1, a sneaker that has reached iconic status in hip-hop fashion and been immortalized in rap songs.

On the other side, the black fraternities and sororities also carry prestige among young black men and women, representing the history of African-Americans and the struggle for civil rights.

The groups were founded in the first decades of the 1900s, when African-Americans weren't allowed in white fraternities, faced lynchings in the Jim Crow South and drank from separate water fountains.

Their alumni lists read like a who's who of African-American history. Martin Luther King Jr. Thurgood Marshall. Jesse Owens. Rosa Parks. Alumni profiles often start with the words, "the first black." Some members have tattooed Greek letters on their backs or even branded them on their chests.

A matter of race?
Given that history, it's hard not to view the dispute through the lens of race.

Yet the case has made barely a ripple in the black community. No one is protesting at Converse headquarters. No one is calling for a boycott.

"This is not a racial issue. This is simply a trademark issue," said Michael Pegues, a Dallas patent attorney and Alpha Phi Alpha leader.

"I don't know if Coca-Cola has the same level of deeply held attachment as our mark has. But this is business. Converse is using our trademark just as if they were to put Coca-Cola's marks on a shoe of theirs without asking to use it."

Others feel differently.

"It happens to black folks a lot of times," Mr. Hamilton said. "You're standing in the line at the grocery store, and the clerk who's taking your order will look beyond you to the person behind you like you're invisible. And you want to say, 'Well what about me?'

"In this case, it seemed that as organizations, we were invisible to the extent that we were not recognized as ones who were there to be sought after."

Converse started selling the sneakers in the fall of 2003 as part of its GREEKPAK line. Shoes had two main colors – such as the purple and gold of Omega Psi Phi – and a small embroidered year – such as 1908, when Alpha Kappa Alpha was founded.

"No matter what your Greek association or affiliation, grab these quick for representation," the ad copy on Converse's Web site read. "These GREEKPAK Weapon basketball shoes are proven to make you proud. See you on the yard."

But Converse never said the sneakers represented any of the fraternities and sororities. The company argues in court papers that the traditional colors and founding years, even when used together, have never been trademarked.

After seeing the ads online, several members called fraternity and sorority leaders asking if the sneakers were authorized.

The groups – Alpha Kappa Alpha, Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta and Phi Beta Sigma – sued Converse in Dallas federal court in December 2003. They alleged trademark infringement and unfair competition.

But the case was dismissed in January 2005 after U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle ruled that the organizations failed to identify any federal trademark registrations that had been infringed.

The fraternities and sororities had trademarked their names and Greek letter trios. Some had included their colors or founding years with those letters. But none had trademarked their colors and years individually or for footwear.

The organizations appealed. They argue that the color-and-year combinations have become universally recognized as theirs and should be protected by law, even without an official registration.

Last month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned part of Judge Boyle's ruling and sent the case back to Dallas court.

Aubrey "Nick" Pittman, a Dallas attorney representing the fraternities and sororities, said he isn't sure how many of the sneakers Converse had sold. But he added that the company had also made money because people thought it had a deal with the Greek organizations.

Converse, which has stopped selling the sneakers, disagrees.

"Protracted litigation costs would easily exceed any profits realized from the products in question," said the Converse statement from spokeswoman Cheryl Calegari. "We believe a more creative solution could be reached to avoid this scenario."

Attorneys are waiting for a judge to set hearings on the case.

The bottom line
But how hot would a sneaker with a fraternity or sorority symbol be at Big T stores like Flawless Wears? It's a place where business cards sport images of 100-dollar bills and where the manager responds to the question, "What you up to?" with the answer, "Trying to get your money."

The most important things about sneakers are their colors and whether someone on MTV or BET is wearing them, said manager Emmanuel Akins, who said his brother owns 250 pairs of Air Force 1's.

"I don't like the Lakers," he said. "But I got a pair of shoes with the colors because it matches."

"You know what they look for?" he asked. "Is it a name brand? Does this color match my outfit? Yes. Nobody cares about the fraternity."

Jerome D. Williams, a professor of advertising and African-American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed.

Blacks on average spend more on footwear than whites, he said. But fraternity and sorority members, who tend to be better educated and have higher family incomes, might not be attracted to the same thing that draws inner-city youth to hip-hop fashion.

"There's a little bit of a disconnect to what I see with the fraternities and sororities and an urban youth market," he said. "I don't know how deeply Converse understands that."

But Steve Brown, an assistant manager at Urban Connection in Southwest Center Mall, said he sees a lot of crossover. Fraternities often host parties at downtown clubs and at Rochester Park that nonmembers also attend, he said.

"Everybody recognizes these symbols," he said. "Flashy is the thing now. If somebody can find a matching hat and matching shoes, they're going to get it."

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