What’s in an Ugg? Court battle brews over boots brand name

LIDCOMBE, AUSTRALIA—Three decades before Oprah Winfrey ignited a fashion firestorm by promoting the fleecy footwear known as Uggs, a surfer named Corky Carroll packed a pair of something very similar for what would turn out to be a fateful journey.

Though Australian by pedigree, the Uggs brand name in the United States is owned by a company based in California.

Carroll, a famous surfer in the 1960s and ’70s, discovered the boots while hitting the waves in Australia, where locals used them to keep their feet warm on cold days at the beach. Carroll brought a pair back with him to California, he said, then asked a friend to send him a hundred to sell on consignment after other surfers began admiring them.

“I have always loved them, very comfortable and warm,” Carroll, who still owns a pair, said in an email from his home in Mexico. “Also easy to get on and off.”

Carroll’s account is now part of a court dispute that is raising hackles in Australia over footwear that has sometimes been derided as unflattering and just plain ugly. Though Australian by pedigree, the Uggs brand name in the United States is owned by a company based in California — and that firm is suing an Australian shoemaker for using it.

Australians — up to and including Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister — say Uggs should simply be uggs. In a letter dated in July, Turnbull said he had asked the Australian Embassy in Washington to get information from the U.S. government about the dispute and to “reiterate Australia’s view that ‘ugg’ is a generic term.”

The argument may be tough to make in the United States, legal experts say. While uggs may be generic in Australia, Uggs are not in the United States.

“Trademark law tends to be very parochial when it comes to this sort of thing,” Barton Beebe, a professor of intellectual property law at New York University, said in an email. “It only cares about the perception of the relevant consumer population, and in the U.S., the relevant population was not likely and probably still isn’t likely influenced by Australian English.”

Uggs — the generic kind — might seem like an odd place for Australia to plant its cultural flag. But it comes as some in Australia fume about people outside the country appropriating Australian names and ideas. Winfrey, Kate Moss and Sarah Jessica Parker may have helped make the footwear famous around the world, but many Australians want to call Uggs their own.

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