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Hipsters to the rescue? UK celebrity venue in spat with auto firm Jaguar

Ian Johnston, msnbc.com

Nick Letchford, co-founder of Jaguar Shoes, outside the bar in Kingsland Road, east London.

SHOREDITCH, London – A British arts "collective" visited by stars like Natalie Portman, Amy Winehouse and Beyonce is locked in a legal battle over its name with automaker Jaguar.

Jaguar Shoes -- a cafe, bar and art gallery -- opened in London’s Shoreditch in 2001 at the start of the transformation of the area from a run-down district to a hub of artistic activity that's become a favorite haunt of the city’s “hipsters.”

Founders Nick and Teresa Letchford, who are brother and sister, created the venue by knocking together a former bag store and a former shoe store. Partly due to a lack of money, they decided to keep the storefront signs, and the quirkily titled “Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes” was born.

Because the Jaguar Shoes sign was over the main door, that became the name they were known by, the name of the collective of artists who show their work there and the name of their website.

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But when they sought to protect “Jaguar Shoes” with a trademark –- a move Nick Letchford said was a response to their work being copied -- car company Jaguar Land Rover submitted an objection that might ultimately make it impossible or impractical to use the name.

The gallery has promoted more than 600 artists, musicians and fashion designers and has been featured in ads for the likes of sneaker firm Adidas.

It was name-checked in the song “You Want History” by British band Kaiser Chiefs. Actress Natalie Portman once danced to the music of Animal Collective in the basement, and Beyonce borrowed their office to do a webcast.

“In Shoreditch, that sort of thing doesn’t come as a massive surprise,” Letchford told msnbc.com in an interview at Jaguar Shoes, because it is “completely full of creative-industry types.”

A former assistant film director who worked with Madonna's ex-husband and filmmaker Guy Ritchie, among others, Letchford said when they adopted the shoe store’s name, “it never crossed our mind” that there might be a problem.

“This has been going on for about two years. We’ve tried to settle it, we’re looking to settle, but it feels like we’re banging our heads against a brick wall,” he said.

“Conceptually, Jaguar Shoes is a very different thing to a Jaguar [car]. If I think what jaguar shoes are, what they represent … most people are going to see a pair of catskin shoes,” he added. “I think it’s basically a default objection to any other use of jaguar, the word.”

Asked if losing the case would mean they would not be able to use the name, Letchford said, “I don’t really want to contemplate that.”

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A hearing at the U.K.’s Intellectual Property Office is due to be heard in the coming weeks.

Catherine Wolfe, president of The Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys, told msnbc.com that the “basic test” was whether people were “confused” and thought Jaguar Shoes had something to do with the car company.

“Are you more likely to go to that bar because it’s got the name of a cool car?” she wondered.

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U.K. law also says a trademark will not be registered if it takes “unfair advantage” of or is “detrimental” to an earlier trademark.

In a recent, separate case, a bar in Southampton, England, called The Hobbit was threatened with legal action for copyright infringement by California-based Saul Zaentz Co., which owns worldwide rights to a number of brands associated with author J.R.R. Tolkien.

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After public outcry, a deal was reached that saw Gandalf actor Sir Ian McKellen help pay a copyright license fee to enable the bar to carry on using the name.

Letchford clearly hopes publicity will persuade Jaguar Land Rover to drop its "irrational and inappropriate pressure," as he said in a press release on Jaguar Shoes' website.

A petition has been set up asking people to sign if they have “never experienced any confusion between the restaurant bar and gallery brand JAGUAR SHOES and JAGUAR who make cars,” and wish to ask the trademark authority to allow Jaguar Shoes to trademark its name.

As of Tuesday morning, the petition had 859 signatures. News of the legal fight has also been spreading on Twitter. Letchford said he thought it likely that most people in London’s creative industries had heard about their case. 

Letchford said Jaguar’s attempt to protect its brand seemed to have achieved “completely the opposite.”

“People have just been like ‘Is this for real?’ It doesn’t feel like it’s for real,” Letchford said.

“I’ve been stressed out about it for two years, and now it’s about to come to a head. It’s a point of principle. really.… The sign is what started the business. That’s the genesis of Jaguar Shoes, that’s the authenticity.” 

Jaguar Land Rover, owned by Indian car giant Tata Motors, did not return a call from msnbc.com asking for comment.

While public records show that Jaguar Land Rover has objected, they do not reveal the grounds for the objection. Letchford said there had been negotiations with Jaguar Land Rover but added that he had been advised not to go into detail.

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