“This industry lends itself to inexpensive start-up costs, with little or no qualifications required whatsoever,” writes the late Gary Warnett in the preface of the FUCT book by Rizzoli. “While not everyone will have success, many will have a try at it, suddenly diluting the once potent message behind a graphic-driven product, creating an ever-growing cycle of disposable art-as-fashion-statement, and bringing a constant flow of news business and brands,” he continues.
Founded in 1990, Erik Brunetti’s FUCT label earned its reputation for pioneering many of the recognizable graphic logo flips that are commonplace today. The label is also known for its use of film stills, controversial graphics, and a pervasive attitude rooted in outlaw culture. His Ford logo flip earned him a cease-and-desist (though it was far from the last he’d receive. After all—how by-the-books do you expect a brand named FUCT to be?
“We’re constantly tied up in some sort of legal litigation or nonsense,” says Brunetti. “I became very accustomed to this sort of thing, dating back to the early nineties.”
Until this week, Brunetti didn’t actually own the trademark to the brand. Despite repeated attempts to file for it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, his request has always been denied. Under the guidance of lawyer John Sommer, a trademark litigator who also happens to represent similarly-minded labels like Stüssy, Brunetti’s 2011 application was appealed, and finally—decades later— he legally owns the FUCT trademark.
“A majority of people most likely believe you can wave a magic wand and start a streetwear brand, but there’s actually a lot of red tape to protect it,” adds Brunetti. “Instead of posting something on the Internet and you bitching about it, you have to suit up and go to court and fight for it.”
This is especially true for fledgling brands and younger designers—the ones who are more likely to get ripped off by larger corporations, fast-fashion entities and storied luxury houses alike. To Brunetti, taking the fight to protect FUCT to court didn’t betray the label’s anti-establishment beliefs, but it was actually a way for him to win by using the establishment’s rules against them.
“To protect something, you have to eventually go to the hierarchy and protect it. Fight against it,” he says. “You’re protecting your brand. Otherwise another individual or person could make it with no repercussions. You have to trademark to a certain extent.”
For 28 years, FUCT’s legal protections fell under what’s known as a “common law trademark,” which means that while unregistered, FUCT’s provenance, design identity, and the way it spelled the name (a backronym for “Friends U Can’t Trust,” though it’s pretty clear what the label’s name is when said out loud) meant it was granted a certain degree of ownership.
“The brand always had a very anti-establishment, outside the law creed,” continues Brunetti. “To be outside the law, you need to learn the law. That’s the only way to fight it. You simply just can’t go: ‘We’re outlaws. We’re anti-establishment.’”
The last big court case in the world of street culture was probably when Supreme took Married to the Mob to court over its continued reinterpretation of its recognizable red box logo. The case was settled out of court, but not before it drew the ire of artist Barbara Kruger, who referred to all parties involved as a “ridiculous clusterfuck of uncool jokers” in an email to former Complex editor Foster Kamer. Ironically, Kruger recently dropped her own clothing collaboration with Volcom, an art installation whose message sums up the mentality of hyped clothing: “Want it. Buy it. Forget it.”
Brunetti sees FUCT as a pioneer in this space, where the flipping of recognizable marks was subversive and had a method to it, rather than just a thinly-veiled attempt to cash in on a more prominent label’s provenance. He acknowledges that Andy Warhol, Malcom McLaren, and Jamie Reed previously did this in the worlds of art and music, but FUCT took it to streetwear.
“The reason we have never been slammed legally for it is because we know the rules of re-appropriation,” he says. “When you’re re-appropriating a logo, for example, if you’re not creating some sort of dialogue or content for the viewer, and you’re just doing it for the sake of doing it, then you’re not going to be able to argue your case.”
Indeed, when John Sommer argued for granting Brunetti’s trademark to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in a hearing this past August, he used George Carlin as an example. The 1978 case of the Federal Communications Commission v. The Pacifica Foundation, in which a New York City radio station was censured by the FCC for airing a broadcast of Carlin’s seminal “filthy words” bit, led to the regulation of offensive material during times when children may be exposed to it.
Referring to that case and Carlin’s memoir in which he reflects on that lawsuit, Sommer suggests that the government’s role isn’t to protect people from words and marks that they may find offensive, but to err on the side of people’s freedoms to decide for themselves.
“You can’t refuse a trademark because it’s offensive,” says Sommer. “Offensiveness of the listener is not grounds to refuse a registration.”
Whereas the Pacifica case dealt with censorship of obscenity on public airwaves, Sommer puts FUCT in the context of a specialty brand with a specific audience and setting for its wares. Another example he recalls is popular American novelty store Spencer’s, a shop which carries products with numerous adult themes, ranging from profanity to gag gift sex toys.
“The point of the First Amendment is the free marketplace of ideas,” continues Sommer. “My client’s marks are never going to be sold at Walmart or Target. There is a place for his marks, and that’s why he’s selling them.”
Key to Sommer’s argument is the notion that the government has no business in determining morality versus immorality, nor is there any legal precedent strongly arguing for it. FUCT’s victory puts the power back in the hands of the instigators of culture who exist to push people’s buttons, and reinforces their importance in society.
Free speech has generally been for the protection of people who actually have something to say, rather than those who would rather go with the status quo. And in today’s political paradigm—that may even be at risk. Take for example, the recent memorandum to the Centers for Disease Control banning the use of several seemingly innocuous terms like diversity, science-based, vulnerable, and transgender in official communications.
Under the current U.S. administration, it’s even more imperative to protect the rights of creators who not only have the ability to speak truth to power, but do so consistently.
“We’re seeing a lot of that, especially in the media now,” says Brunetti. “Free speech is being stifled because it goes against people’s comfort zones…You have to accept free speech whether you agree with it or not.”
Now read about how YouTube’s new content guidelines may restrict freedom of speech.