With a new semester starting in two months, South Korean school uniform makers are currently busy reproducing a slew of checkered-pattern school uniforms.
"Tens of millions of won have gone to waste," said an official from Hyungji Elite, a school uniform brand, who wished to be unnamed.
The hasty disposal and reproduction of school uniforms follows an agreement reached last year between UK fashion juggernaut Burberry and the Korean School-uniform Industry Association, a business lobby representing local school uniform makers.
Under the agreement, Burberry’s trademark check pattern – red and black lines on a beige background along with three lines of the same width crisscrossing each other at equal intervals – will be prohibited from use on uniforms made from this year.
Check patterns have been widely used in Korean school uniforms since the 1980s, when a decree allowing more colors and patterns was announced. Before then, school uniforms here came in black without a pattern.
Inspired by Western preppy-style school uniforms, uniform makers here started using various check patterns for better designs, sometimes purportedly infringing on Burberry’s trademark check patterns.
In 2019, Burberry raised an official complaint against the decades-old business practice, saying their trademark pattern was being used on Korean school uniforms without approval.
"In last May, Burberry said it would not file a lawsuit if Korean school uniform makers stop the production of new school uniforms with their trademark on it, starting 2023,” an official from the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education said on condition of anonymity.
Aside from the “Burberry check,” check patterns involving multiple lines at irregular intervals using different colors will still be allowed on school uniforms “in principle,” but experts warn uniform makers still need to be wary of future lawsuits.
"Uniform makers should generally avoid using check patterns in the future in order to circumvent any possibility of lawsuits," said Kim Kwang-jun, president of Licensing Executives Society Korea.
“What matters most is consumers’ perception when it comes to trademark infringement lawsuits,” he added.
According to Kim, a licensing expert himself, there are no clear rules on what could be viewed as trademark infringement.
“During patent violation trials, judges even carry out surveys to find out how a trademark is perceived among customers,” he said.
Burberry’s London headquarters could not be reached for comment.
The milestone agreement between Burberry and school uniform makers comes after a long history of the UK fashion house aggressively protecting its intellectual property in Korea since the enlisting of its trademark here in 1998.
The list of defendants ranges from large corporations including the nation’s leading underwear maker Ssangbangwool Group, LG Fashion and Samsung Group’s fashion unit Samsung C&T to smaller labels.
One well-known case includes its feud with Ssangbangwool, when the court ruled that Ssangbangwool had been selling men’s boxers with Burberry's check patterns under the brand TRY. Burberry claimed 100 million won ($78,700) in compensation from Ssangbangwool in 2014, and banned future production of TRY underwear bearing its trademark.
LG Fashion, a local maker of men's suits, is also known for using check patterns on a beige background on its apparel. It was forced to pay Burberry 30 million won in a settlement.
However, not all of Burberry’s lawsuits have been successful. In 2006, Burberry lost its case against Beanpole, the apparel brand under Samsung C&T, after the brand proved that its check pattern had been based on a traditional Korean lattice.
By Lee Yoon-seo (firstname.lastname@example.org)