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The Hells Angels a protected brand

hells angels

It is common knowledge that the Hells Angels logo and other club badges are totally off-limits to everyone except a select group of individuals. In the "world of Hells Angels Motorcycle Club rules," investigative journalist Serge F. Kovaleski declared in 2013, "only full members are allowed to wear the provocative badge of the skull or the two words of the club name, which, like the logo, "are protected by law worldwide. Patches cannot be purchased. They cannot be won, and often it takes years.

Hells Angels

Fontana is an arid and heavily populated interior expanse of San Bernardino County, California, bordering the San Gabriel Mountains. This is where the Hells Angels started. A handful of young WWII veterans, "weary of the boredom of civilian life," gathered in the late 1940s to drink, ride cheap motorcycles from a post-war surplus and , in general, spending time in the United States. ground. In the process, these men - many in their late teens - laid the groundwork for what would become "a uniquely American subculture of hardened individualism, fierce brotherhood, and contempt for the mores of society." , as Kovaleski so aptly put it.

In the decade since the founding of the Fontana chapter, it will be joined by a number of other similar groups. According to the New York Times, “Throughout the 1950s, Hells Angels groups spread across California, eventually uniting into a confederation, with each club retaining its own autonomy. The now-famous club has since expanded much beyond the boundaries of California to include independent charters that dot the world - from Southern California and Manhattan to Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Sydney, to name but a few. only a few.

The group, as a whole, has around 800 members across the United States and up to 2500 around the world, according to the United States Department of Justice. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approximates the number of 5 members and at least 000 regular “hangers”. As for Ralph "Sonny" Barger, who founded the Oakland Charter in the late 10s when he was 000, he "refuses to say how many Hells Angel members there are," said he had experienced a sort of "growth spurt." "

Despite a lack of clarity on the group's numbers, at least one aspect of its history is relatively clear; it is littered with legal issues that concern a vast empire of drug trafficking, stolen goods, racketeering and extortion. If we are to believe the roles of the courts in the United States, where members of this organization go, violent crimes tend to follow.

But look beyond the indictments, jury verdicts and long prison terms, which make headlines, and you'll see that over the past two decades or so, a different kind of trial has been associated with it. to the group: intellectual property litigation.

As the stories unfold, if a Hells Angel member "sees someone with a Hells Angel patch who doesn't have their place on his back ”, he will tear it off and give it a brutal and often bloody lesson. “Angels have always dealt quickly with fakes, impostors - impostors,” wrote Intellectual Property magazine a few years ago. "This is one of the reasons the patch is so important: it is a mark of authenticity."

If the 70-year-old club learns that a company is using its legally - and sometimes physically - protected logos, its members take a markedly different approach; they initiate legal proceedings.

Court records across the country bear witness to this. In 1992, for example, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club ("HAMC") sued Marvel Entertainment Group for a Hells Angels-themed comic book. In the spring of 2006, the group took a division from Walt Disney on the PG-13 rated film “Wild Hogs,” a comedy about middle-aged bikers, starring Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy. In 2011, they clashed at Alexander McQueen, Saks Fifth Avenue and, challenging the making and sale of handbags, jewelry, and clothing bearing designs that were - in their eyes - far too similar to the skull. of the club. wings skull design.

In all of these trials and the frenzy of others like them, Fritz Clapp, lawyer for HAMC - the elite group of motorcycle enthusiasts or the vicious gang that uses violence and intimidation to promote its criminal goals, as defined. that you adopt, the group or the United States Department of Justice - pointed out federal trademarks registered with the HAMC, some dating from the 1970s, and called infringement.

The former lawyer for the group can't recall exactly how he first found out that Saks Fifth Avenue was selling expensive fashion items bearing the skull logo. "I think a member from New York called me after learning that a non-member had seen them" in the high-end department store, if he remembers correctly, but cannot say for sure .
Alexander McQueen dress and ring and trademarks of the HAMC

Mr. Clapp's nearly 25-year tenure with the club began in the early 1990s. “At the time, I was working as a lobbyist for biker rights, and Sonny [Barger] was in jail as a result. of a RICO case, ”Clapp says. Berger, the Oakland Chapter and Hells Angels Corporate Branch chief, was reportedly finally dropped from the system in November 1994 after a 4-year federal prison sentence and 2-year parole resulting from his role in a national conspiracy to bombard. a rival club, and celebrated with a party attended by 700 people, including then-United States Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

In the meantime, although Oakland-based Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation, the non-profit mutual company that owns and maintains all intellectual property rights in the club, was facing an ever-increasing number of unauthorized uses. of its name and logos. His superiors decided the time had come to bring in an in-house lawyer to handle his intellectual property cases.

"We need a lawyer"

With Barger temporarily out of service, famed James "Guinea" Colucci, a close friend of Barger and a "full" member of the Oakland chapter of the HAMC, interviewed Clapp for the role.

Clapp says he came on the group's radar as a result of his work as a lobbyist for the Modified Motorcycle Association, in opposition to a '90s California state law that made helmets mandatory for everyone. motorcyclists. The law was passed, to the chagrin of the club - and Clapp -. “I still don't wear a helmet that meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218,” he says defiantly. "I resist thoroughly."

In his interview with Guinea, who, according to the Los Angeles Times, had just been "freed for trafficking in methamphetamines, cocaine, illegal weapons and explosives," Clapp said he was asked what he would do if anyone. one infringed any of the Hells Angels trademarks.

“I said, 'Well, we'll send them a' cease and desist 'letter, Clapp recalls.

"What would you do if they didn't stop and abstain?" Guinea continued.

"I said, 'Well, then I'm going to chase their ass,'" Clapp replied.

“That was obviously the right answer,” he said more than 25 years later. Soon after, the lawyer wearing the red mohawk was recruited and would devote much of his professional career to helping what he calls "the most famous club in the world" to protect his precious intellectual property.

“I was hired in March 1992 by the non-profit HAMC company, which owns the trademarks and licenses them to charters,” he says. “I haven't worked for charters or members. I worked for this separate company, which owns the brands and sues mostly on behalf of the licensees. "

Although he watched - and to some extent, lived - the role, Clapp is not and has never been a member of the club. “There are lawyers who are big enough and tough enough [to be members], but I'm not one of them. I'm just a little old me, ”he said innocently enough, referring to a gentle demeanor and stocky stature, compared to some of the band, that is. “Besides,” he adds, “it would have blurred the relationship or created some kind of conflict. "

With a plethora of tattoos, the bright red mohawk, a long-standing love for motorcycles (his current bike was a gift from the club's Oakland arm in 1994 or 95, he says), and a biker bar he called his, this particular lawyer had meaning for the role. "I was enough like them to understand and relate."

If Clapp, who graduated from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento in 1981, was not the group's first lawyer, he is certainly the most famous. Two decades earlier, the HAMC had brought in an outside attorney, a traditional "suit" - as Clapp describes it - named John M. Romanchik, Jr. to register the group's name and various other logos with the US Patent and Trademark Office. . Romanchik's main focus has been on getting the club's rights in order and "has never had a chance to sue for trademark infringement," according to Clapp.

Highly publicized lawsuits

With an arsenal of trademark rights at his disposal, it was time to act, and that is precisely what Clapp did - filing more than a dozen high-profile lawsuits for the famous 'out-of-the-world' biker club. law ”against companies ranging from Marvel Comics to rapper Young Jeezy. His goal was simple. The strategic lawsuits were not simply launched to "punish violators", but were part of an effort to "inform the public that the Hells Angels trademarks are well guarded, not generic and not must not be raped, ”Clapp told The Times in 2013.

In order to get the message across, Clapp says he used a "strategy of bringing cases of shock and awe and enlightening them to federal court and the media." His well-established penchant for the rigorous - and very public - protection of the group's hallowed brands eventually earned him the cover of Intellectual Property Magazine in March 2011. The buttoned-up legal trade publication dubbed him "The Lawyer From Hell." . The nickname would stick.

It's almost impossible not to realize that at the heart of the Hells Angels' open controversy over its intellectual property is a fair amount of irony. While the club's in-house attorney was busy filing trademark infringement lawsuits against Disney and Alexander McQueen, at least some of its members were actively making headlines for "causing death and destruction in California over the years. Past 10 years ”, for example, or for landing on the wrong side of charges of“ racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering - in particular, fraud, extortion and trafficking in stolen motorcycles ”.

The HAMC, very conscious of its image, has an explanation: those who act are “bad apples”. More than that, because each chapter is set place as an independent and managed entity, the Hells Angels subsidiary holding the intellectual property is - at

The HAMC, very conscious of its image, has an explanation: those who act are “bad apples”. More than that, because each Chapter is created as an independent and managed entity, the corporate arm of the Hells Angels, which owns the intellectual property, is - at least on paper - completely separate.

In a movement that speaks to the group's business - and legal - acumen, whenever a section or its members get a glimpse of the law, the self-proclaimed "non-profit mutual society" that is the organization figures bow of HAMC can accurately distance itself on the basis that such events are not technically related to HAMC as a whole.

“The Hells Angels care more about their image than any other criminal group,” Julian Sher, a Montreal-based investigative reporter who has written extensively on motorcycle gangs, told Newsweek. The group's carefully crafted structure is just one example of its efforts to protect itself from what Barger called the "exaggerated" accounts of crime and violence.

“Sure, I sold a few drugs, but I never made a multi-million dollar claim [media and prosecutors]. If I did, I certainly wouldn't be working here today, ”he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994, referring to his now defunct Oakland Custom Motorcycles repair and parts shop, located just across the street from the facade covered with stone. is the Clubhouse of the Oakland Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club. In terms of jail time: Barger spent "12 or 13 years" in prison, which he says is "not much, considering how much fun I had.

As with everyone else who wears a Hells Angels badge? “I prefer to let them speak for themselves. "
Very contentious and very contentious

Mr Clapp is not immune - or unwilling to speak up - of the mixed messages associated with the club. He says he has always "reconciled" the apparent dichotomy in a twofold way. “Yes, there are Hells Angels who have committed crimes. There have even been entire charters that conspired to commit crimes; Hell, there have been entire charters that were dissolved because they were all shut down. But, according to Clapp, “that doesn't mean the club as a whole is a conspiracy. "

It also doesn't mean that the group's extremely valuable brand portfolio doesn't need as much protection and enforcement as any other company's. In fact, he says, given the level of awareness of HAMC, the need for protection is even greater.

Not only does the club maintain "a strong sense of having control over the exclusivity of the use of its membership marks," but HAMC's marks "are in danger of becoming generic," he said, referring to the 'use of a mark as a synonym for or descriptive of a general class of goods or services, as opposed to a single source. It is the death knell for solid brand rights.

The Hells Angels are "so famous," Clapp claims, "that they are the Kleenex for what they are," a reference to the widespread misuse of the once-protected Kleenex trademark to refer to tissue in general, thus depriving Kleenex from its previously owned trademark rights.

"I'm saying it's in danger of going generic because if you go out on the streets anywhere in the world and say, 'Name a famous biker club', that's the only one you can name , ”And therefore, in Clapp's eyes, a danger that the name of the Hells Angels is used as a synonym for motorcycle clubs in general, thus no longer serving to identify a single group or source.

With this in mind, the group must control unauthorized uses of its trademarks, according to Clapp, and the principles of trademark law.

Meanwhile, Clapp, now 72, left his position with the group in 2016. “I still do occasional things, I still represent a few charters but not above membership marks,” says- he. This does not mean that the group has become less vigilant, however. As we speak, the HAMC is in the middle of a legal battle with Melbourne-based Redbubble in Australian federal court. According to the HAMC complaint, the online market has facilitated the sale by third parties of counterfeit Hells Angels products on its site.

As for Mr. Clapp, such vigilance on the part of a "famous brand" makes perfect sense.

What is less straightforward for him is why the group's polarizing public figure plays such a divisive role when it comes to his right to legal protections. “People think that just because a group is represented in a certain way, they are no longer allowed or should benefit from the law in other areas, like intellectual property,” he says. “For me, it's so interesting. " translated source

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