Navajo Nation files trademark suit against Urban Outfitters

A screenshot of Navajo-themed items that are sold on the website for Free People, which is one of the Urban Outfitters brands.
A screenshot of Navajo-themed items that are sold on the website for Free People, which is one of the Urban Outfitters brands.
Posted: February 29, 2012

The Navajo Nation has filed a federal lawsuit against Urban Outfitters Inc., alleging that the Philadelphia-based retailer committed trademark infringement by marketing and selling products that use the Native American tribe's marks and names without a licensing or vendor agreement.

In the civil action filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, the Native-American tribe and its commercial subsidiaries seek damages and an order stopping the company from using the "Navajo" and "Navaho" names and marks on goods that compete with its own trademarked jewelry, housewares and clothing.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday. Urban Outfitters operates a store in New Mexico, which also is one of three contiguous states including Utah and Arizona that houses the sovereign tribe's 27,000 square miles of territory.

The lawsuit alleges that Urban Outfitters began using the nation's actual Navajo name, and a differently spelled version, "Navaho," in its product line or in connection with the sale of its merchandise as early as March 16, 2009.

The company applied those names to clothing, jewelry, footwear, handbags, caps, scarfs, gloves, undergarments and scarves, among other merchandise it was selling, the lawsuit charges.

The disputed merchandise also allegedly featured designs and marks that "evoke the Navajo Indian Tribe's tribal patterns, including geometric prints and designs fashioned to mimic and resemble Navajo Indian and Tribal patterns, prints, and designs," the lawsuit says.

"Urban Outfitters has sold and is selling over 20 products using 'Navajo' and 'Navaho' trademarks in its retail stores, its catalogs, and its online stores," according to the tribe.

Telephone messages left for Urban Outfitters spokesman Ed Looram were not immediately returned early Wednesday afternoon.

One example, according to the tribe: A "Leather Navaho cuff" was offered on Urban Outfitters' website in January 2010. About a year later (by its estimation), the tribe said the company also launched a product line of "20 or more items containing the NAVAJO name, or the term "Navaho" in the product name alone," the lawsuit said.

Those included a "Navajo Nations Crew Pullover," "Navajo Feather Earrings," a "Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask," and a "Navajo Hipster Panty," the lawsuit says.

The alleged infringement was not limited to just the Urban Outfitters brand but also extended to its Free People brand, which is both a wholesale designer label and a group of stores run by the retail corporation, which is headquartered at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. (The publicly traded corporation also operates stores under the Anthropologie, Terrain and BHLDN names.)

To support this claim, the tribe included in its court filings a link to a Free People web page, which showed jewelry available under the "Navajo" name.

On Wednesday, the link displayed a Web page showing turquoise-colored stones on necklaces and bracelets labeled "Vintage Handmade Navajo Necklace" for $328.00; "Vintage Navajo Squash Necklace" for $398.00; and "Vintage Navajo Cuff" for $298.00.

The lawsuit comes months after the Navajo Nation tangled with the company over the issue out of court, including a demand that Urban stop using the "Navajo" trademark.

"The company did remove the word 'Navajo' from its product names on its website, and replaced 'Navajo' with the term 'Printed' in response to the Navajo Nation's cease-and-desist letter," the lawsuit said. The lawsuit cited an October 2011 news story as evidence of the company's having agreed to do so.

That did not, however, occur to the tribe's satisfaction, according to the lawsuit, which alleges that the retailer has continued to use the disputed names and marks on goods sold in its stores and "also continued to use the word 'Navajo' on its sales receipts."

Navajo Nation accuses Urban Outfitters of trademark infringement, trademark dilution, unfair competition and commercial practices laws violations, and for violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.


Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431, mpanaritis@phillynews.com or @panaritism on Twitter.

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