Suit says Target products look suspiciously like Pottery Barn's

Parent company Williams-Sonoma alleges copyright infringement.

One of the nation's trendiest home furnishings retailers has accused Target Corp. of systematically copying its designs on a range of products, from Christmas stockings to votive candle holders.

The lawsuit, filed by Williams-Sonoma Inc., suggests that Target hides behind its vendors, insisting they indemnify the corporation from such lawsuits, at the same time it specifies precisely what products look like.

Copyright infringement lawsuits among retailers and designers have become more frequent in recent years as competition for the shopper's wallet intensifies and mainstream retailers attempt to up their style quotient. Many of these lawsuits are dismissed or quietly settled.

Williams-Sonoma, which operates Pottery Barn and other chains, claims in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday that a quilted Christmas stocking sold at Target stores contains "every distinctive element of the Pottery Barn Christmas stockings," right down to the snowflakes and blue sky.

More pointedly, the company says the stocking infringement is part of a "longstanding pattern of copying by Target of [Williams-Sonoma] designs for rugs, linens, tableware, furniture, lamps and other products."

The lawsuit is one of several filed in the past year accusing the Minneapolis-based discounter of copyright and trademark infringements. In October, Lucky Brand Dungarees, which sells $100-plus jeans worn by the likes of Salma Hayek and Sandra Bullock, filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York, accusing Target of copying its distinctive floral-design jeans and its rear-pocket stitching.

In a response filed Friday, Target and its vendor denied the accusations, saying the Lucky Brand floral pattern "represents a mere trivial variation" of public designs and is not copyrightable. It said that use of any embroidered floral pattern or pocket stitching "was done with innocent intent" and without knowledge that it "constituted an infringement of copyright."

And Vera Bradley, a supplier of high-end handbags, tableware and rugs, a year ago sued Target for allegedly selling skirts and swimwear with designs that looked "substantially similar" to cloth designs copyrighted by Vera Bradley.

A week ago, Target and Vera Bradley "compromised and resolved" its dispute, according to a court filing. No details were given.

Target spokeswoman Amy von Walter declined to discuss the copyright-infringement allegations made by Williams-Sonoma and other companies.

'A little bit' too distinctive

George Whalin, chief executive of Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos, Calif., said the lawsuits are happening too frequently for the resemblances to be accidental.

"There appears to be an attempt by Target to copy designs a little bit," he said. "But that little bit is too distinctive. You can't copy an innovative retailer like Williams-Sonoma just a little bit."

There has been growing friction among brand owners and large retailers over intellectual property rights. In September, Coach sued Target for allegedly selling counterfeit handbags, which Target claimed it had purchased at a department store liquidation sale. Coach moved to have the lawsuit dismissed the next month. Fendi filed a similar lawsuit against Wal-Mart for allegedly selling counterfeit purses at Sam's Club. Anthropologie Inc., a chain of women's clothing stores, last year accused Wal-Mart of selling skirts with fabric and color schemes that are identical or nearly identical to those sold at Anthropologie stores.

Target has made a name for itself as the place to buy trendy designs -- or "cheap chic." It has partnered with high-end designers, including Isaac Mizrahi and Michael Graves, to sell lines of their products within its stores.

Stan Pohmer, a Minneapolis retail consultant and a senior buyer at Target from 1983 to 1996, said many of the lawsuits are frivolous and are part of an attempt by retailers to protect their brands.

"When I was at Target, we were very conscious of others' trademarks and copyrights and did the homework to ensure we were not in violation," Pohmer said.

Referred to vendors

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