Carlisle Ghirardini, MJLST Staffer
Earlier this month, the federal court in the Southern District of New York issued an opinion regarding a luxury fashion brand’s trademark rights in the Metaverse – the first trial verdict concerning trademarks in non-fungible tokens (NFTs). The suit was brought in January of 2022 by the Parisian fashion giant Hermès when a digital artist created NFTs of the brand’s iconic “Birkin bag” and made a profit selling these “MetaBirkins.”
The key question in the suit came down to whether the NFT was likened to art, which would receive First Amendment protection, or a consumer product, which would be subject to trademark infringement liabilities. A federal grand jury found the artist’s use of the Birkin name and style to be more commercial than artistic in nature, and, therefore, potentially infringing on Hermès’ trademarks depending on public perception.
Trademark infringement is the unauthorized use of a mark in a way that would confuse a consumer as to the source of the product or service connected to the mark. Surveys and social media evidence in this case showed confusion among NFT consumers as to Hermès’ involvement with the MetaBirkins, which led the jury to find the use of the mark to be infringing and a capitalization of the Hermès brand’s goodwill for profit. Hermès was awarded $133,000 in total damages – a small win for the fashion powerhouse, but a huge win for brand owners across many different industries who now know their trademark rights may be protectable in the Metaverse.
I don’t use or understand the Metaverse – why should I care about this decision?
Even for those who don’t know what an NFT is, this decision to extend trademarks rights to the Metaverse is still important. First, it is well known that many brands are now registering trademarks in the Metaverse, so if a consumer sees a brand in this realm, there is a higher likelihood of confusion of association with that virtual good or service. If people assume a connection between a brand and the illegal use of its mark, the brand is at risk of significant damage. For example, if an unauthorized user opened a Metaverse McDonald’s which gave out racy or controversial happy meal prizes, McDonald’s could face serious backlash if its consumers believed McDonald’s to be condoning such activities.Although it seems like this connection may be less convincing or harmful for a big brand like McDonald’s, it was enough to compel Hermès to protect the integrity of their brand and their customers. It is not only big brands that can be victims of such infringement, however. While it is easy to understand why someone would take advantage of a more recognized company due to greater traffic, this could easily happen to smaller brands we know and love. If the little coffee shop chain you frequent is hurt by such virtual infringement, perhaps by a local competitor, it could run them out of business. Connecting a brand in the Metaverse to products or values they are not aligned with could have damaging real world effects.
Just as brand exposure in the Metaverse can cause harm, it also has the potential to benefit businesses. Such virtual brand display, which is cheaper than buying advertising or opening a new brick and mortar store, can translate to more business in the real world. Brands have started creating virtual experiences that have driven in-store sales and served as powerful marketing. Vans shoe and skateboard company, for example, made a Metaverse skatepark in which users could earn points when “boarding” that were redeemable for discounts inside real Vans stores. Chipotle released a burrito-making game that yielded “burrito bucks” for exchange in their actual restaurants. As use of NFTs grows, and as brands recognize the ramifications of the Hermès lawsuit, we will likely continue to see more trademarks used in the Metaverse. Brand owners should keep in mind the dangers of failing to sufficiently protect their trademarks in the virtual space and the potential for benefits if used strategically.
 Reed Clancy and Alexander Curylo, Verdict Reached in MetaBirkin NFT Case, AIPLA NEWSTAND (Feb. 9, 2023), https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=0faf6e67-38b4-4add-971d-badd08199c0c&utm_source=Lexology+Daily+Newsfeed&utm_medium=HTML+email+-+Body+-+General+section&utm_campaign=AIPLA+2013+subscriber+daily+feed&utm_content=Lexology+Daily+Newsfeed+2023-02-13&utm_term=.
 Muzamil Abdul Huq et al., Hermès Successfully Defends its Trademark in the Metaverse, AIPLA NEWSTAND (Feb. 9, 2023), https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=6dba3b12-030d-41ff-98c6-1c2aad6468ce&utm_source=Lexology+Daily+Newsfeed&utm_medium=HTML+email+-+Body+-+General+section&utm_campaign=AIPLA+2013+subscriber+daily+feed&utm_content=Lexology+Daily+Newsfeed+2023-02-13&utm_term=.
 About Trademark Infringement, U.S. PATENT AND TRADEMARK OFFICE, https://www.uspto.gov/page/about-trademark-infringement (last visited Feb. 17, 2023).
 Huq et al., Hermès Successfully Defends its Trademark in the Metaverse, AIPLA NEWSSTAND (Feb. 9, 2023).
 Joanna Fantozzi, Why Every Restaurant Operator Should Care About NFTs and the Metaverse Right Now, NATION’SRESTAURANT NEWS (Feb. 25, 2022) https://www.nrn.com/technology/why-every-restaurant-operator-should-care-about-nfts-and-metaverse-right-now.
 Zachary Small, Hermès Wins MetaBirkins Lawsuit; Jurors Not Convinced NFTs Are Art, N.Y. TIMES (Feb. 8, 2023), https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/08/arts/hermes-metabirkins-lawsuit-verdict.html.
 Fantozzi, Why Every Restaurant Operator Should Care About NFTs and the Metaverse Right Now, NATION’SRESTAURANT NEWS (Feb. 25, 2022).
 Andrew Hanson, Understanding the Metaverse and its Impact on the Future of Digital Marketing, CUKER (Mar. 29, 2022), https://www.cukeragency.com/understanding-metaverse-and-its-impact-future-digi/.
 Dani James, How Retailers are Connecting the Metaverse to real World Sales and Revenues, RETAILDIVE (Nov. 14, 2022), https://www.retaildive.com/news/retailers-connecting-metaverse-roblox-real-world-revenue/636209/.