IP Rights in Virtual Fashion: Lessons Learned in 2022 and Unanswered Questions
There was a lot of talk and much hype about the “metaverse” in 2022. While some were skeptical and stayed on the sidelines to watch, many companies began offering virtual counterparts to their real-world products for use by avatars in the metaverse, including virtual clothing and accessories. For example, Tommy Hilfiger live-streamed a virtual fashion show on Roblox as part of the New York Fashion Week, and Decentraland hosted a Metaverse Fashion Week. Many companies also introduced NFTs into fashion product lines, such as Alo’s NFT offering.
The emergence of virtual goods has generated novel questions about how to protect and enforce IP rights in virtual fashion, and how those strategies might differ from IRL (meaning “in real life”) fashion. Although many questions remain unanswered, this article sets out important considerations for how companies might use various IP laws to protect virtual fashion goods in the United States.
I. DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN VIRTUAL FASHION AND IRL FASHION
Before diving into the IP discussion, it’s worth highlighting some distinctions between virtual fashion and IRL fashion outside the legal context, beyond the obvious fact that virtual fashion is worn by avatars. IRL clothing and accessories are worn primarily for protection against the elements, to conform to societal standards, to conform with a specific event’s dress requirements, to communicate via express messages on clothing or accessories, or to express oneself through the style or design of the clothing.
Virtual fashion can also serve each of those purposes for an avatar, and in some cases the person behind the avatar. But, because it is comprised of software code, the possibilities for virtual fashion utility are endless. For example, a particular piece of virtual clothing can also grant access to certain virtual spaces or events or give the avatar special powers within virtual worlds. If tied to an NFT (non-fungible token), virtual clothing can also provide benefits on and off virtual platforms, including exclusive access to sales promotions and IRL events.
Unlike IRL clothing, however, virtual fashion items currently face compatibility limitations, as the ability to use any virtual fashion item across all virtual platforms is unlikely.
To muddy the waters, as virtual and augmented reality technologies are becoming more popular, they can blur the lines between IRL and virtual fashion. For example, an IRL sweatshirt, when viewed through an appropriate lens, could feature virtual components.
II. IP PROTECTION FOR VIRTUAL FASHION
Because there are no IP laws specific to virtual fashion items, we must seek protection from laws that have traditionally applied to real-life clothing, namely, trademark, trade dress, copyright, and design patent. But the application of these laws can sometimes differ in the virtual context. Each is addressed below.
Trademark law protects source identifiers such as words, names, logos, and slogans. Obtaining trademark rights specifically in virtual goods, whether acquired through use in commerce or federal registration, is generally straightforward and similar to marks covering IRL fashion. This is evidenced by many marks that were registered in 2022 and specifically cover virtual goods.
That said, even if a company does not have trademark coverage specifically for its virtual goods, the owner of a trademark covering IRL fashion items should have strong arguments that such trademark rights extend to their virtual counterparts. To that point, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) has refused registration of marks covering virtual goods and services based on prior registrations for the identical marks covering the corresponding IRL goods and services. See, e.g., the refusals of Application No. 97112038 for the mark GUCCI and Application No. 97112054 for the mark PRADA, each of which were filed by parties unrelated to the famous brands.
However, for purposes of enforcement outside of the USPTO context, if a defendant’s goods are virtual, it would have a stronger argument that such goods are not commercial products, but rather expressive works protected by the First Amendment. If a court accepts such an argument, it must then weigh the plaintiff’s trademark rights against the defendant’s First Amendment right of free expression, meaning it would be more challenging for a brand owner to enforce its trademark rights.
In this regard, please see our earlier alert regarding the Hermès v. Rothschild case, in which the court deemed NFTs tied to images of bags called “MetaBirkins” subject to First Amendment protection.  In denying Rothschild’s motion to dismiss, the court acknowledged in a footnote that virtually wearable bags (i.e., as opposed to virtual fashion that is displayable but not wearable) might not be afforded First Amendment protection. But we suspect defendants will argue even virtually wearable items should be afforded First Amendment protection, especially given that video games have received such protection. 
On balance, companies should consider seeking federal trademark registration specifically for virtual goods and services, for a few reasons:
- More direct coverage could help a company in an enforcement action against infringing virtual goods, even if the defendant successfully argues it should be entitled to First Amendment protection. For instance, if the plaintiff has direct coverage for virtual goods, it may be easier to prove the defendant’s use of the mark was “explicitly misleading” under the Rogers test. 
- Certain platforms featuring virtual fashion items may only honor a takedown request if the complainant company has a federal registration covering goods that are the same or nearly identical to the allegedly infringing virtual goods.
- The registration will provide a presumption of valid trademark rights nationwide, and it may serve as a deterrent to third parties wishing to use confusingly similar marks in virtual worlds.
B. Trade Dress
U.S. trademark law also protects certain source-identifying elements of a product’s aesthetic design, configuration/shape, and packaging, often referred to as “trade dress.” To obtain trade dress protection, such elements must be (1) non-functional and (2) distinctive (either inherently or acquired through use). There are a couple of interesting nuances with respect to acquiring trade dress protection in the virtual context.
First, although we have not yet seen any case law specifically addressing this, companies will likely have stronger arguments that virtual shape or design elements (as opposed to IRL elements) are non-functional. Specifically, the non-functionality requirement means the relevant elements must not be essential to the use or purpose or affect the cost or quality of the article. For real-life fashion items, this can be difficult to meet due to the inherently functional nature of many aspects of clothing or accessories. However, because virtual fashion items are essentially software code with endless possibilities, in many instances the fashion item will not require any particular design or shape to function.
Second, some virtual fashion items could receive more favorable treatment from a distinctiveness perspective. The distinctiveness requirement has historically been a difficult barrier for protecting IRL fashion. Specifically, case law prior to 2022 established that, while packaging can sometimes be inherently distinctive, product design and configuration/shape can never be, meaning companies must prove such elements have acquired distinctiveness. Proving acquired distinctiveness is burdensome because the company must have used the elements extensively, substantially exclusively, and continuously for a period of time. Often, by the time a company can acquire distinctiveness in the design, the design is no longer in style. Or, if a design is popular and copied by third parties, it can be difficult for the company to claim it used the design substantially exclusively.
If, however, a virtual fashion item provides the user with benefits that go beyond merely outfitting the avatar, such as by providing access to other products or services, one might argue that those items should be construed as packaging, or some new category of trade dress, for such other products or services, in which case the elements could possibly be deemed inherently distinctive with respect to those other products or services.
That said, if a company already has trade dress protection for IRL fashion goods, it should have good arguments that the protection extends to any virtual counterpart. On the flipside, given the difficulties companies typically face in seeking trade dress protection in IRL fashion, to the extent they can obtain trade dress protection in a virtual counterpart more easily, perhaps it can argue the rights in any virtual goods should also extend to the physical counterpart. Or, if a company introduces a physical design and virtual design simultaneously, it could possibly acquire distinctiveness in both sooner, as the simultaneous use would presumably create greater exposure to more customers and reinforce the source-identifying significance of the alleged elements.
With respect to enforcement, like traditional marks, defendants are more likely to raise a successful First Amendment defense for any virtual products allegedly infringing trade dress. The Hermès case is again an example of this, as Hermès alleged infringement of both its BIRKIN word mark and the trade dress rights in the design of its handbags, and the court held that the defendant’s MetaBirkin NFTs were entitled to the First Amendment protection.
Finally, although obtaining trade dress protection is typically more difficult than obtaining trademark protection for traditional marks such as words and logos, companies should also consider seeking registration for trade dress in virtual goods, particularly for important designs that are likely to carry over from season to season, for the same reasons discussed in the trademark section above.
Copyright protects original works of authorship that contain at least a modicum of creativity, which is a relatively low bar. However, copyright does not protect useful articles. In effect, for IRL fashion items, copyright generally extends only to those designs that would be entitled to copyright protection if they were extracted or removed from the clothing or viewed on a different medium, and not to the shape of the fashion item itself.
Like trade dress protection, copyright protection should provide companies with greater protection for virtual fashion items than would be available for IRL items, particularly because the software behind the virtual fashion can theoretically create an infinite number of clothing shapes that are creative and not necessarily “useful.” Nonetheless, if a virtual clothing item is merely shaped like its IRL counterpart that lacks originality (e.g., a virtual t-shirt shaped like a basic real-life t-shirt), it may also fail to qualify for copyright protection based on a lack of creativity.
Unlike trade dress protection, however, copyright protection arises immediately upon creation of the work and its fixation in a tangible medium of expression, so it can be a useful tool for protecting virtual fashion without having to spend the time and resources required to seek registration as trade dress and establish acquired distinctiveness.
In addition, unlike IRL fashion, a separate copyright protects the underlying source code for virtual clothing items, which could provide owners with an additional, though likely limited, claim against unauthorized source code copycats.
A copyright registration will provide owners with the ability to sue for copyright infringement, but companies should balance:
- the benefits of seeking potentially broader copyright protection in virtual fashion items (apart from the code) than it would for IRL items with the risks of conceding that virtual fashion items are works of art entitled to First Amendment protection, which would make trademark and trade dress enforcement more difficult; and
- the benefits of obtaining any copyright registration for source code with the benefits of keeping the source code secret (although the Copyright Office permits some redactions, significant portions are required to be deposited into the public record).
We are unaware of any 2022 case law specifically addressing copyright in virtual fashion. However, the following cases are worth watching:
- Andy Warhol Found. for Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith: In October 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments regarding whether Andy Warhol’s “Prince Series” silk screen prints and pencil drawings based on a photograph infringed the photographer’s copyright, or whether they were sufficiently “transformative” to constitute fair use. The outcome of this case could affect a copyright owner’s ability to enforce copyrights against unauthorized digital reproductions of its work, especially if the original work is fixed in a physical medium (e.g., enforcing copyright in a physical clothing item against a third party’s digital reproduction).
- Thaler v. Perlmutter: Filed in June 2022, the plaintiff is suing the U.S. Copyright Office for refusing registration of an AI-created image because there was no human author. The outcome of this case will necessarily implicate virtual fashion incorporating any AI-generated work.
D. Design Patent
Design patents protect the ornamental appearance or look of a unique product. Specifically, they protect any new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. Traditionally, this law was interpreted to require that the article of manufacture is a physical or tangible product. Thus, in the fashion industry for example, one can file a design patent application directed to a unique shoe, handbag, or jewelry design. Historically, an image or picture would not qualify for design patent protection.
However, the USPTO is currently assessing design patents with respect to new technologies such as projections, holograms, and virtual and augmented reality. In December 2020, the USPTO issued a request for public comment regarding a potential rule change to the “article of manufacture” requirement and whether U.S. law should be revised to protect digital designs. Public opinion was mixed, and in April 2022, the USPTO issued a summary of this requested information.
Although the USPTO has not yet formally revised the rules, it has issued guidelines over the years that provide examples of non-physical products that could be protected by a design patent, suggesting changes may ultimately be coming to U.S. design patent law. For example, in 1995, the USPTO released guidelines for design patent applications claiming computer-generated icons. In general, to be eligible for protection, the computer-generated icon must be embodied in a computer screen monitor, or other display monitor. The USPTO has also issued guidance allowing type font to be protectable by design patents. However, it is still unclear whether the USPTO will set forth design patent guidance specific to digital designs or virtual fashion.
Notwithstanding the possibility of obtaining a design patent specifically on such virtual goods, courts have been reluctant to find that a virtual product infringes the design patent for an IRL product. For example, in 2014, in P.S. Products, Inc. v. Activision Blizzard, Inc., P.S. Products accused Activision of infringing its design patent directed to a stun gun by depicting a virtual weapon in its video game that P.S. Products claimed resembled its patent-protected IRL product.
The court found there was no infringement because “no ordinary observer would be deceived into purchasing a video game believing it to be plaintiffs’ patented stun gun.” This case may have come out differently if the virtual gun was sold separately from the video game and could be used across various platforms rather than being one component of a particular video game. Although there are still software compatibility restrictions for virtual goods, portability of virtual goods is likely to grow as technology evolves and companies respond to consumer demands.
While we wait for further USPTO guidance that ultimately may have application to virtual fashion, parties seeking design patent protection may consider simultaneously filing one application to protect the work as a digital design on a display screen, like a patentable computer-generated icon, and a second, traditional design patent application to protect the design as a tangible product. That said, companies should consider other options for protecting any designs created by AI, as the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals held in 2022 that AI cannot qualify as an inventor for purposes of obtaining a patent.
III. Virtual Fashion in Practice
Contracts relating to virtual fashion are analogous to contracts for IRL fashion and should be structured accordingly. For instance, companies should ensure that contracts with IP contributors include an assignment of all IP rights, or at least a sufficiently broad license. In the virtual context, this includes rights to the software code itself. Likewise, downstream licensing should generally address ownership, licensee rights, and if applicable, confidentiality for any trade secrets in the source code. In addition, for both IP contributors and licensees, if AI software is used in any part of the creative process, companies should give thought to allocation of ownership.
In addition, some designers or marketing teams may prefer to encourage a brand’s customer base to copy its designs or create derivative works. Although this seems counterintuitive (especially to an IP lawyer), many players in the Web3 space encourage others to build off their own designs. For example, the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), known for issuing NFTs tied to images of apes, grants owners of its NFTs the rights to use the images of apes, including for commercial purposes. For example, one purchaser of a Bored Apt NFT created a Bored Ape-themed restaurant.
In the virtual fashion context, if a marketing team wants customers to build off the brand’s virtual designs but wants to retain ownership of its own designs (and perhaps derivatives), it should implement standard licensing terms relating to ownership, customer licensee rights, and other provisions. However, it’s important to consider how the terms are presented and how customers indicate assent to maximize the prospects of enforceability.
From a business perspective, companies can also now use NFTs and smart contracts to receive automatic royalties in any downstream sales or licenses. And because NFTs use blockchain technology, which provides an immutable chain of title, third parties will be able to trace such designs to the original source. This means companies can encourage the sharing of designs and receive royalties in connection with the downstream licensing of designs tied to NFTs, and third parties can confirm that the designs are legitimate by reviewing the relevant blockchain ledger. Accordingly, although encouraging customers to use the brand’s designs may not be a model for every brand, there are some steps brands can take to protect the IP rights associated with them and reap financial benefits.
As virtual fashion items become more popular, companies are faced with uncertainties and novel questions regarding how to protect and enforce their IP rights. In 2022, some questions were answered, but many more remain open. Therefore, it is important to discuss strategies for protecting innovative virtual fashion with IP counsel.
If you have any questions about this article or if you would like to discuss how your company can best protect its virtual fashion designs or trademarks, please contact Kasey Boucher at email@example.com or Shannon Vittengl at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Notably, on December 30, 2022, the Hermès court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment, with an opinion to follow by January 20. A jury trial is scheduled to begin on January 30, 2023. Hermès International, et al. v. Mason Rothschild, 1:22-cv-00384-JSR (S.D.N.Y.).
 See, e.g., AM Gen. LLC v. Activision Blizzard, Inc., 450 F. Supp. 3d 467, 485 (S.D.N.Y. 2020).
 If a defendant’s unauthorized use of a mark is protected by the First Amendment, many courts use the Rogers test to balance the plaintiff’s trademark rights with the defendant’s First Amendment right of expression. This test looks at whether the defendant’s use of the plaintiff’s mark was artistically relevant and, if so, whether it was explicitly misleading. Rogers v. Grimaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir. 1989).
 11 F.4th 26 (2d Cir. 2021), cert. granted, 142 S. Ct. 1412 (2022).
 Case No. 1:22-cv-01564 (D.D.C.).
 140 F. Supp. 3d 795, 802 (E.D. Ark. 2014).
 Thaler v. Vidal, 43 F.4th 1207, 1213 (Fed. Cir. 2022).
 We will save for another day a discussion of the recent lawsuit against BAYC and many celebrities for failing to disclose financial incentives when promoting the BAYC NFT collection, and instead focus here on IP protection. Adonis Real, et al., v. Yuga Labs, Inc., et al., 2:22-cv-08909 (C.D. Cal.). But companies should also ensure that influencers properly disclose any incentives and other material connections.