Almost three decades ago, L.A. Gear embedded blinking LED lights in the soles of nondescript hightops and became a must-have item on playgrounds across the county.
“You’ve got to own the light if you want to own the night,” one of the company’s television commercials said.
These days, L.A. Gear says it owns a lot more than the light. The company is challenging trademark applications for “L.A. Chargers” and “L.A. Rams” in addition to the Chargers’ “Fight for L.A.” slogan, claiming the use of “L.A.” infringes on its name.
“Applicant’s applied-for Fight for L.A. Mark so closely resembles Opposer’s L.A. Marks that the use and registration thereof is likely to cause confusion, mistake, and deception,” one filing with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said, “as to the source or origin of Applicant’s goods and will injure and damage Opposer and the goodwill and reputation symbolized by Opposer’s L.A. Marks.”
L.A. Gear’s parent company, ACI International, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Chargers and Rams declined comment.
“They’re not going to win,” said Rams linebacker Matt Longacre, born a year before the light-up shoes debuted in 1992. “That’s ridiculous, but, hey, more power to them. People got to get their money somehow.”
Once endorsed by celebrities like Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jackson and Joe Montana, L.A. Gear stumbled when the sole came off one of the company’s shoes worn by a Marquette basketball player during a nationally-televised game in 1990. No amount of neon detailing on shoes, in-your-face names like Brats and Hot Shots, or hyped technology like the Power Feedback System in hightops could undo the unfortunate episode.
After the light-up sole fad fizzled a few years later — Minnesota banned some models of the shoes because they contained mercury, which didn’t help — L.A. Gear fell on hard times and declared bankruptcy in 1998.
In recent years, the company has protected the L.A. name with the intensity displayed in its decades-old advertisements. Remember Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wearing spandex short-shorts and high socks in front a flaming basketball hoop? The slogan read: “We will rock you!” And long before Luke Walton became Lakers coach, he endorsed the company as a rookie in 2003.
L.A. Gear challenged the Lakers’ use of “L.A.” in 2014. The Clippers were next in 2016.
The language in both opposition filings was virtually identical, alleging the names are “confusingly similar” to L.A. Gear and the company’s trademarks “became famous in the minds of consumers long prior to the date of filing of Applicant’s mark.”
The Lakers and Clippers reached an “amicable resolution” with L.A. Gear in July, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records, where the teams removed “footwear, basketball shoes and basketball sneakers” from a list of possible products covered by the mark.
After L.A. Gear challenged LA2024 — the name for the city’s Olympic bid before landing the 2028 Games — the parties reached a similar solution.
Resolving the disputes with the Chargers and Rams hasn’t been as easy.
After settlement talks didn’t lead to a solution, the Rams filed an answer last month to L.A. Gear’s opposition.
“Applicant denies that the L.A. Gear and related marks have become famous,” the filing said.
It went on to point out that the company doesn’t have exclusive rights to “L.A.” or “LA” because they’re “primarily geographic terms that refer to the city of Los Angeles.”
The Chargers noted in another filing the “L.A. Chargers” was first used during the team’s inaugural season in Los Angeles in 1960.
Douglas Masters, a Chicago-based lawyer who is an intellectual property expert, said L.A. Gear’s opposition isn’t likely to succeed.
“One of the consequences of building a brand around the name of your city is that your rights can be narrow,” he said. “It’s hard to see that sports teams that use L.A. clearly to reference where they play will infringe those rights unless they borrow the logo or other look and feel of the shoe brand.”
One Rams player offered a solution to the problem.
“I mean, L.A. Gear I’m pretty sure has got a little bit of change,” defensive end Ethan Westbrooks said. “A little bit more than me. Tell them to come sponsor me.”