They're still no Angels

Around this time of year, when we hear names like, Toys “R” Us, Saks, Zappos, Target and Dillard’s, we think of places to buy presents. When we hear brands like Alexander McQueen, Walt Disney and Marvel Comics, we think of favorite designers and popular characters.

While all that’s certainly true, all the corporations listed above have a much more interesting commonality than mere retail market share. Every company named above has been sued by the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, the rough and tumble motorcycle club, perhaps best known for breaking the law, is no shrinking violet when it comes to litigiously protecting its vast array of trademarks and copyrights.

As the Times reports, “The Hells Angels remain etched in the popular imagination as sullen, heavily muscled men in leather vests … rebels with no particular cause but their own form of ritualized brotherhood. But over the years, the group collectively made a leap from image to brand.”

The Times lists a dizzying array of Hell’s Angels merchandise that prominently feature either the famous winged death’s head logo. “Big Red Machine” or 81 (H and A are the eighth and first letters of the alphabet). Such marques emblazon T-shirts (children’s sizes available), beanies, tank tops, bikinis, underwear, pins, cigars, key chains, window decals, calendars, coffee mugs and women’s yoga pants.

Yes, Hell’s Angels yoga pants. We’ll file that in the “wonders never cease” folder. Perhaps even more curious is the Angel’s legal mouthpiece, Fritz Clapp, a 67-year-old intellectual property specialist with a bright red Mohawk and purple fez.

The first time Clapp represented the Angels was in 1992. The defendant was Marvel Comics. Marvel named a comic book and its lead character Hell’s Angel. The company changed the name to Dark Angel and agreed to donate $35,000 to a children’s charity.

He’s been their copyright lawyer ever since.

Of his unique client’s legal campaign, Clapp observed, “Part of the strategy is to bring shock-and-awe cases and to shine a bright light on them in federal court and the media. The intent is not just to punish the infringers but to educate the public that the Hells Angels marques are well guarded and not generic and that they must not be infringed upon.”

While all of this might lead one to believe the Hell’s Angels have “gone legit” there is evidence to suggest that they haven’t completely abandoned the smoky bar room for the coat and tie corporate boardroom.

While older members tended to pursue more blue-collar vocations, the younger members tend to be more eclectic. Some work in motorcycle repair shops or tattoo parlors, but others have less stereotypical jobs: eye doctor, chef, accountant, lawyer, military contractor and high school football coach.

As Richard “Chico” Mora, a Phoenix, Arizona Chapter member, told the New York Times, “The new members are younger, smarter and savvier, and they have better bikes.”

For their part, the U. S. Department of Justice is less convinced. In 2011 the DOJ placed the Hell’s Angels on the same ignominious list of criminal organizations as the Italian Mafia, the Chinese Triads and the Japanese Yakuza.

Drawing parallels between those other organizations and the Hell’s Angels is also interesting because it reminds us that the cooptation of legitimate business models by criminal enterprise facilitates a kind of sanitizing effect. It allows allegedly erstwhile gangs of murderous thugs to wink at their past while selling you a T-shirt. Nobody would dare suggest that Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan be afforded the same kind of economic and social do-over. It’s curious that we’ve romanticized the Hell’s Angels enough to permit theirs.